Every campaign by now is traveling with a cold it passes around, and John Kerry has not been spared: he sits in his plane with tea and lozenges, sounding like a cement mixer. He had had a morning conference call, a town hall meeting and an economic justice forum in South Carolina and was on his way to a union rally in Delaware before ending up in Kansas City, Mo., for the night. And the funny thing is, none of this was supposed to have happened: not the cold, not the crowds, not, in fact, the campaign itself. "I mean, I fully expected Al Gore to be our President for our generation," Kerry says, remembering what these days felt like four years ago. "I worked my ass off for him. I went around the country. I campaigned hard. I expected him to be elected, and that would have been that."
But, of course, that was not that, and now John Forbes Kerry gets the turn he has waited for all his life. He has told friends he learned something from Gore's fate about what really matters in a race. It was not about whether to run as a centrist or a populist, not about labels or lock boxes. Gore lost, he says, because people believed he didn't believe in anything. "People take a measure of your vision, your character," Kerry says. "They really want to know how you can affect their lives--whether they trust you."
For Kerry, the good news from New Hampshire, beyond the fact that he won, is that he's reading the voters right: pollsters found that the single most important quality voters were looking for was the ability of the candidate to stand up for his beliefs. The bad news for Kerry is that he won only 20% of those people. More people voted for him because they thought the austere combat veteran with the lucky initials could beat President Bush than because they agreed with him or knew what he stood for. Whether that provides his rivals an opening in the next few weeks remains to be seen, but it certainly won't go unnoticed by the White House.
In fact, even as Howard Dean was attacking Kerry from the left for voting for the second Iraq war, the USA Patriot Act and No Child Left Behind, G.O.P. chairman Ed Gillespie was already preparing CLUELESS-MASSACHUSETTS-LIBERAL placards everywhere he went. "Whether it's economic policy, national security policy or social issues, John Kerry is out of synch with most voters," Gillespie proclaimed on Jan. 23. Other G.O.P. hit men have him in their sights: "We made Al Gore look like a Massachusetts liberal," says one. "Can you imagine what we'll do with a Massachusetts liberal?"
But Kerry is primed for this line of attack. He has had many years not just to refine his political philosophy but also to explain it in a way voters might accept and with luck even admire. Throw the Latte Liberal label at him, and Kerry will counter with his support for faith-based programs and welfare reform and the fact that he proposed a dividend tax cut long before Bush did. "They're going to have a hard time pinning that to me," Kerry once told TIME. "They're not going to find it is easy making me something I'm not." And besides, he said, as he invariably does when someone suggests the war hero is vulnerable, "I'm pretty good at defending myself."