updated 8/9/2004 12:27:11 PM ET 2004-08-09T16:27:11

A decade after he lost a bid for the U.S. House, John Kerry faced a choice: build a respectable, mainstream career in Boston’s legal circles or wade back into the muddy waters of Massachusetts politics.

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“After ’72,” said Dan Payne, a Democratic consultant who later worked for Kerry, “John told friends he wouldn’t run again.”

Few believed him. When he decided in 1982 to return to politics, Kerry aimed low: lieutenant governor, a post with little power, few responsibilities and almost no public profile. But it offered a chance to build a statewide political organization. Losing either the primary or the general election could be a career-ending defeat.

Kerry won both, a much-needed jolt to his political ambitions leading to his presidential nomination last month — and a lesson in how to run a campaign.

“He understands the building of a political base. John knows that in his bones,” said Evelyn Murphy, his main opponent in that primary race 22 years ago. “It’s a tedious process, but he’s doing it now with the same sort of zest and enormous physical strength that it takes.”

Kerry had attended law school after he lost the 1972 race for Congress, then served as first assistant to the Middlesex County district attorney. He was in private law practice in Boston when he sought public office again.

In Massachusetts, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run separately in the party primary, then as a ticket in the general election. Kerry had an edge over his four rivals in the primary: He had managed to keep his face before the public, first as a top prosecutor and then as a guest on “Five On Five,” a weekly television talk show.

“He always had a smooth, rather elegant delivery. He was very polished,” said Marjorie Arons-Barron, former editorial director of WCVB-TV. “It was a time when he was testing a lot of ideas on all manner of public policy, small and large.”

Still, Kerry’s campaign got off to a weak start. He barely won enough backing at the state Democratic convention to earn a spot on the primary ballot.

To stand out in voters’ eyes, he shot a TV spot spoofing the pretensions of the lieutenant governor’s office. The ad showed a goofy-looking man cutting out paper dolls, snipping his tie in half during a ribbon-cutting ceremony and earnestly consulting with a stuffed duck. A second, serious ad promoted his experience as a prosecutor.

“He is at his best under extreme pressure,” said Ken Swope, who produced both ads. “He just wouldn’t give up.”

The race narrowed to Kerry and Murphy, a former state environmental secretary who remembered Kerry as “a ferocious competitor.”

Kerry tried to appeal to moderate voters by portraying himself as a tough, law-and-order Democrat and targeting white-collar corruption. He also staked out issues designed to woo liberals, such as supporting a nuclear weapons freeze. Murphy emphasized her environmental credentials and her work as an economist running her own company.

Too close to call
By primary day, the race was too close to call.

“Everyone thought I was going to win the thing, but he scrapped around and he won it,” said Murphy, who was seeking to become the first woman elected to statewide office in Massachusetts. “He fights to the last minute.”

Kerry found himself paired with Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee for governor. While some Dukakis loyalists were wary of his ambitious running mate, their partnership ended up working. Kerry had made acid rain one of his campaign issues, and Dukakis made Kerry his point man on that problem.

Looking back, Dukakis remembers a “bright, articulate, hardworking” running mate who quickly set to work opposing Republican nominees John Sears and Leon Lombardi. They defeated the GOP ticket 58 percent to 36 percent.

In office, Kerry suggested the governor create an anti-crime council — to mend relations between different branches of law enforcement — with Dukakis as chairman and Kerry as vice chairman.

“That was his baby. That was his idea. We both took it very seriously,” Dukakis said recently. “He was great to work with, he worked hard and did a great job.”

Kerry seemed most at home in his role as a liaison between the state and federal government, Dukakis said, a position that gave Kerry an opportunity to develop the kind of reputation that made it possible for him to run for the Senate.

Pressuring the EPA
For example, Kerry traveled to Wisconsin to strike a deal with progressive coal-burning Midwestern states to put pressure on the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

His efforts resulted in a resolution by the National Governors Association calling for cuts in sulfur dioxide emissions that were polluting waters in the Northeast; the move would help lead to the enactment of federal Clean Air Act amendments in 1990.

“He had ambitions beyond being lieutenant governor, which isn’t a bad thing,” said Environmental Affairs Secretary James Hoyte. “If anything it made him want to do an even better job.”

During a trip to Germany to study damage from acid rain in the Black Forest, just a year into his term as lieutenant governor, Kerry learned that Democratic Sen. Paul Tsongas would not seek re-election in 1984.

“John came to me and said if you want to run, it’s yours,” Dukakis recalled. He passed, and within weeks Kerry entered the race. In 1984 he won election to the Senate.

That first win and the time Kerry served as lieutenant governor helped to sharpen his political instincts, said former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, who worked on those early campaigns.

“John has always been a very serious student of politics and government. He never took anything lightly. Being the lieutenant governor was a learning process he was very committed to while understanding it was just a stepping stone,” Flynn said. “He learned and observed and was just paving the road to the White House.”

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