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msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/20/2004 12:31:09 PM ET 2004-05-20T16:31:09

John Kerry loves windsurfing, loves it so much he once made the cover of a glossy magazine devoted to the sport. As I report on his presidential campaign, it occurs to me that windsurfing symbolizes his political career — and the strategic theory that could bring him victory in November. For John Kerry doesn’t expect to be admired, let alone beloved. He doesn’t mind being labeled a “flip-flopper.” Indeed, windsurfing is just that: a constant maneuver to fill your sail. Kerry aims to catch the wind — and the drift of history. The war in Iraq is a hurricane, and Kerry hopes to ride it into office.

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Kerry’s theory of this campaign is pretty straightforward: to be the guy people have no choice but to vote for on Nov. 2. Not because he has a stirring new vision (he doesn’t); not because he’s such a darned likable guy (he isn’t); but because circumstances are such that fair-minded “swing” voters have no choice but to pick him. He’s not running against the war, per se, but as the nobleman at the end of the Shakespeare play, a beacon of sanity on the battlefield.

An odd mixture of arrogance and self-abnegation, Kerry is under no illusions that voters will embrace him in a personal way. At a meeting with fund-raisers in New York the other month, he declared that his goal was to weather a wave of attacks and “preserve my acceptability.” There you have his strategy in its clinical glory: They don’t have to love me, they don’t even have to like me. If I am in the right place at the right time (and am “acceptable”) they will choose me.

For whatever reason, Kerry always has yearned to be the designated leader, and he doesn’t care if people don’t like him as long as he gets the certified role. He was an outsider in prep school, but got to give the big speech. He was regarded as too hungry at Yale, but ran the Yale Political Union anyway. In ’Nam, he commanded the swift boat; back home, the anti-war boat. He’s not beloved in Boston, but they kept electing him. His timing was almost always superb. He beat a popular Republican governor in 1996 — in a year when Massachusetts went overwhelmingly for Bill Clinton over Bob Dole.


He has been waiting for his moment for years. He once told me with pride that every other Democrat in his “class” — meaning his Senate class of 1984 — already had run. Now it was his turn. He felt he was entitled now; more important, the moment felt right. He began running the instant the Supreme Court ruled in favor of George W. Bush. The country, Kerry thought, was ready.

From the start, Kerry has known that perhaps his biggest obstacle is his image (much of it justified) as a class Massachusetts liberal. From the start, he pointed to evidence that went against the grain: his time as a prosecutor, his valor in the war, his ability to handle a shotgun on a hunting trip, his support for Clinton’s welfare reform. Along the way, he abandoned his down-the-line opposition to the death penalty and became a more ardent supporter of tax cuts.

Most famously, Kerry voted for the Iraq resolution in 2002 and then against the $87 billion for it in 2003 and then pointed out that he had voted for an alternative version of that bill before finally voting against it. Talk about tacking ...

Video: Iraq war opponents use images But politics is a game of comparison in which timing and context are all. And given where the war in Iraq is right now, the Kerry flips may matter less than where he flopped. In the new Gallup survey, Kerry and Bush are running neck-and-neck on the question of who can better handled the situation there. If the president can't handle it — and the doubts are growing — then what choice will voters have come November? Why not a guy with personal experience on a real battlefield who sounds like he can deal with the diplomats?

Bush operatives are worried
That’s the theory. And it’s one that Bush operatives are worried about more than they say. Their objective, of course, is to drive Kerry’s “negatives” beyond the “acceptability” range, but portraying his flip-flops as part of a larger problem: that he is somehow weak, and befuddled and, well, strange. “Troubling” is the word that Bush-Cheney ’04 has been using in TV ads.

But what really concerns Team Bush is their own man’s falling job-approval numbers. The rule of thumb: That overall figure is an almost exact predictor of an incumbent president’s actual vote. In the most recent Gallup survey, that number for Bush is 46 percent — the lowest of his presidency and a clear sign of danger. They take some comfort in the fact that Kerry hasn’t directly benefited. Indeed, the main beneficiary for now remains Ralph Nader, whose percentages in some polls are going up while those for Bush and Kerry show little or no movement.

The critical voters at the end will be the same ones they always are: undecided women. Many will be the now-classic “waitress moms,” single working women perhaps less concerned this year about the size of their paycheck than their children’s safety on this tumultuous, hate-filled planet. Who will better protect them? If the sheriff has made a mess of things, you might have to vote him out — even if he’s the one you’d rather see coming into the café.

Howard Fineman is Newsweek’s chief political correspondent and an NBC News analyst.

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