John Kerry’s Rainy Day

Things started out well at Senator John Kerry’s rainy-day press conference outside Engine Company 44 on East 75th Street on Oct. 27.

The number of reporters in attendance was bigger than the event’s organizers expected. (“Must be a slow news day,” said one staffer.) Mr. Kerry received warm endorsements from a number of local Democratic officials, including U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney. Firefighters praised him for his efforts to obtain federal dollars for emergency workers. And he even managed to deal gracefully with a persistent heckler on the opposite sidewalk. (“How much is your wife worth?” the heckler shouted. “I’ll talk to you later,” said Mr. Kerry, effectively ending the conversation.)

But then came the questions from the press. They were not about federal aid for cops and firefighters, and they were not about Ms. Maloney’s endorsement. They were about the polls, which currently show Mr. Kerry trailing former Vermont Governor Howard Dean in New Hampshire and elsewhere. Mr. Kerry offered his now-familiar pained smile, then responded:

“You guys have to stop [being] fascinated by polls… This race is not about polls.”

He went on to point out that “Al Gore was behind Bill Bradley by more points than I am right now behind Howard Dean.” And then he added a line that is quickly becoming a mainstay: “Howard Dean has no foreign-policy experience whatsoever, and George Bush has proven that this is not the time for on-the-job training for a President.”

A few months back, the press’ focus on “process” stories-who’s winning and who’s losing-wasn’t so bad for John Kerry. His strong organization, heavy donor base and unimpeachable military credentials made him the media’s presumptive front-runner. Lately, though, it’s been more problematic for him, and it’s clear that he’s not happy. The ascendant Dean campaign has been the center of media attention in the race lately, with the candidacy of retired General Wesley Clark receiving most of the leftovers. Mr. Kerry has been forced to spend less time talking about his qualifications and ideas, and more about how to break the Dean campaign’s domination of the primary coverage.

This dynamic was very much in evidence at a private dinner in the Upper EastSide apartment of supporters Steve Rattner and Maureen White later that day. The high-powered crowd demonstrated its belt-tightening commitment to the Kerry campaign by dining on takeout Chinese food.

Mr. Kerry talked at length on the key policy issues of the moment, positions he formed in part with input from many of the people in his audience. When he talked about how to improve international reconstruction efforts in Iraq, for example, he had former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke on hand to back him up. And when he talked about the economy, his opinions were reaffirmed by his stable of financial advisers, including former Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman, and financiers Hassan Nemazee and Orin Kramer.

Then, inevitably, someone asked Mr. Kerry how he would get around the Howard Dean problem. His response, said one attendee, “was that if the press wasn’t going to ask tough questions about Howard Dean, he’d do it himself.”

Among his supporters at the dinner-a collection of about 30 major Democratic players-the consensus seemed to be that Mr. Dean had to be stopped somehow, and that Mr. Kerry was the candidate who could do it. “There was definitely a sense in the room that people who care about the election have an obligation to care about who our nominee is, and that John Kerry is the only thing that stands between the Democratic Party and Howard Dean,” said Mr. Kramer. “If Howard Dean is the nominee, the Democratic establishment will support his candidacy, and any of the people who were there [at the dinner] will vote for Dean over George Bush. But when he goes into swing states and swing districts, I think you will find a lot of candidates on the ground who have scheduling conflicts, and when you look at the significant donor base, I think you’ll see a lot more attention being paid to other races.”

In other words, if Mr. Dean is the nominee, other Democrats are likely to run away from the top of the ticket.

Mr. Kramer expressed hope that the race’s dynamics were changing, that Mr. Kerry would soon receive his share of attention. “There are a lot of perceptions about the race that aren’t going to be the same once the candidates put ads on the air,” he said. “This race may be on the verge of a big change.”

Mr. Kerry has been doing his best to help that change come about. In addition to his campaign’s steady output of press releases attacking Mr. Dean-a tactic that is answered in kind by the Dean campaign-Mr. Kerry himself has been increasingly aggressive in criticizing Mr. Dean’s record. At the Democratic candidates’ debate on Oct. 26 in Detroit, Mr. Carey began several of his answers with denunciations of Mr. Dean’s previous statements and positions on funding entitlements like Medicare and Social Security (saying that Mr. Dean has not ruled out cuts in those programs), the war in Iraq (saying that Mr. Dean has not articulated a plan for rebuilding) and on repealing the Bush tax cuts (saying that Mr. Dean’s plan amounts to a middle-class tax hike).

Big Gap

It’s too soon to tell if the attacks have been effective. But so far, the polls-for whatever they’re worth-continue to show a big gap between the Senator and Mr. Dean. (The latest, a widely reported Zogby Poll of likely voters in New Hampshire, showed Mr. Dean on top by 23 percentage points.) And these days, it’s the supporters of the former Vermont governor who are happy to sit back and point at the scoreboard.

“The strategy of tearing someone down is the old way of Washington, and it’s just not flying anymore,” said Dean campaign spokesman Eric Schmeltzer. “I think that’s reflected in the poll numbers.”

(The Kerry campaign, by contrast, contends that it’s Dr. Dean who’s engaging in negative politics, labeling him “Karl Rove’s best friend” for running television ads that criticize his Democratic opponents. “Howard’s baseless attacks have garnered him headlines, but it’s John Kerry’s vision and experience that will carry the day,” said spokesman David Wade.)

As for Mr. Kerry’s comments about the media’s priorities, Mr. Schmeltzer said: “If you have something worthwhile to say, you’re going to get covered in the media. That’s what’s happening here. Governor Dean is building one of the most exciting and extensive grassroots efforts in American history, and he’s leading the charge to take our country back. I think that’s pretty newsworthy.”