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JOAN VENNOCHI

Challenge is to rise above ambition

JOHN KERRY fought hard for the Democratic presidential nomination, and he earned it.

If he goes on to win the White House, he will have the grandest of stages to prove, finally, that he can fight for causes other than himself. As a presidential candidate he is promising to do just that. But for much of his political career he did not show much willingness to fight for anyone but John Kerry. The key exception is his dedication to the Vietnam veterans he calls his band of brothers.

That is not Kerry-bashing. That is stating truth about a smart, worldly, and ambitious politician who throughout his life focused his energies on getting right where he is today: an election day away from winning the presidency of the United States. But a lot can and will happen between now and then.

Kerry is the Democrats' answer to the challenge for American politicians after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In this post-9/11 world, it takes more than a pretty face, a positive message, and a Southern drawl to convince voters you can beat George W. Bush.

Americans still think about their pocketbooks first, but after 9/11 they do it with a cautious glance at the world beyond. Kerry convinced Democratic primary voters that he has the intellect, experience, and background to handle both foreign affairs and domestic policy issues.

Looking as if you can handle an issue, however, is different from clearly articulating where you stand on it. Democrats are setting up a race between a president on the wrong side of the issues against a challenger on both sides of many issues. The muddy middle worked for Bill Clinton because he waded through it with a grin. Kerry is growing as a candidate, but charming equivocation remains a campaign challenge.

Kerry's ties to Massachusetts and his years in Washington are baggage in a national campaign. However, the bigger risk lies in Republicans' ability to exploit Kerry's votes for policies he now criticizes.

The debate is almost guaranteed to bring Americans back to Sept. 11 -- first to the fear and the death, then to the blows to the American psyche and economy. Dealt the card of a horrific act of terrorism on American soil, Bush made decisions and took actions that are now questioned by many.

Kerry endorsed those decisions with his votes in the Senate, from the USA Patriot Act to war with Iraq. If enough Americans changed their minds along with him and keep them changed, that voting record will not matter. If enough Americans conclude that Bush did the best he could with the cards he was dealt -- why gamble on a second-guesser?

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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