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Kerry heads back on campaign trail

After a weeklong pause for the Reagan funeral, Sen. John Kerry will kick-start his presidential campaign back into high gear this week. NBC News Carl Quintanilla reports on Democrat's  efforts to regain lost momentum.
/ Source: NBC News

For the past week, John Kerry has been the candidate who wasn't there.

The Democratic presidential hopeful canceled all political events after news broke of President Ronald Reagan's death on June 5. Last week, out of respect for the national week of mourning, he limited his schedule to private meetings, mostly in Washington.

Now, as Kerry resumes public campaigning this week, staffers are seeking to reassure Democrats his time out of the public view hasn't taken any wind out of his sails.

Aides point to the latest Los Angeles Times poll, showing Kerry with one of his biggest leads yet over President Bush. The poll of 1,230 voters, conducted June 5 through June 8 -- after Reagan's death -- shows Kerry ahead of President Bush 51 percent to 44 percent. The poll's margin of error is plus-or-minus three percentage points.

"The momentum we've created we feel confident will ... sustain itself," said Rep. Harold Ford Jr., (D-TN), Kerry's national campaign co-chair. "If we've lost some, we'll recreate it."

Back seat last week in more ways than one
The focus on Kerry's re-entry into the presidential race highlights just how much of a back seat the election took to Reagan's funeral.

Until Reagan's death, Kerry had been visiting two cities per day, pushing a national security agenda that had been largely well-received. In West Palm Beach, Fla., he emphasized control of nuclear weapons and materials. In Independence, Mo., he talked about revamping the nation's military and adding 40,000 troops to active duty.

But in the past week, Kerry has been holed up in his Washington campaign headquarters, holding policy briefings with advisors and working on his upcoming vice-presidential pick, campaign officials say. He also flew to Los Angeles to see his daughter, Alexandra, graduate from film school.

President Bush, meanwhile, is coming off a week in which he had some of his highest-profile appearances in this election year: sitting with French President Jacques Chirac during D-Day remembrances, and hosting world leaders at the G-8 summit in Sea Island, Ga.

Even Kerry supporters privately admit they expect those appearances to give Bush a temporary bounce in the polls this coming week.

Needing a kick start
Kerry will restart his campaign by focusing on the economy and the state of the middle class in America. With stops in New Jersey, Michigan and Ohio, he will argue middle-class families are struggling with higher costs of living - as prices rise for everything from heath care and college tuition to gasoline.

That message is intended to counter the argument, put forward by the Bush campaign in recent weeks, that the job market in America is improving. Employment data shows the nation has added more than 1.4 million jobs in recent months.

Republicans and some political observers charge that Kerry's message is too harsh — and too negative — to resonate with voters, particularly after a week of pageantry and emotion in which Americans saluted President Reagan's famed optimism.

"It's particularly inappropriate and probably ineffective coming so soon after a week of Reagan nostalgia focusing on the Gipper's optimism," said Larry Sabato, professor of political science at the University of Virginia.

Still, most political observers say the emotion surrounding Reagan's funeral is unlikely to affect the presidential campaign for long.

"It changes things for a few weeks and that's it," said Sabato. "There are five months until the election. That's time in this crazy era of ours for the world to turn over three or four times."