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To some constituents, Kerry still a puzzle

NEW BEDFORD -- These days, it's hard to find a politician who's universally loved or even universally known. But there is something in the way Massachusetts natives will rant about the Kennedys, or rhapsodize about the late US Representative J. Joseph Moakley, that suggests an enduring image.

And then there is the way people tend to talk about Senator John F. Kerry. The one who's running for president. The Vietnam vet. The one whose wife is an heiress . . . right? "Married the Hunt's queen -- Heinz -- Heinz 57," said David Willis of Hull, sitting on the fishing boat Regina's Pride in New Bedford harbor, which had just arrived with a haul of monkfish. "Seems like he is spending a lot of his own money to get a job."

He has been Massachusetts' junior senator for two decades now, embroiled himself in countless domestic and foreign policy debates. But as his image takes shape on the national stage, Kerry's current constituents, quizzed at fishing docks and shopping malls, at parks and campuses, cite him as a perpetually fuzzy figure, tall and craggy-jawed, but hard to define.

True, Kerry is expected to win Tuesday's Massachusetts primary with ease, and his favorability ratings coast in the comfortable 60 percent range, a sign of his political endurance. He has inspired deep passion in some pockets and won the endorsement of many elected officials. But as a native son who is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president; Kerry has not exactly inspired a flood of hometown pride.

Many residents queried said they couldn't think of much to say about him at all.

"I would have said, up until now, he kept a relatively low profile," said Melissa DePhillips, 33, a social worker who mused about Kerry in the Chestnut Hill mall, not far from where Kerry once lived and launched a phase of his political career.

It's all part of the image Kerry has contended with for years, and confronted, at times, with a sense of humor. At a fund-raiser in 1995, Kerry strategists aired a clip from the sitcom "Cheers," when barflies Norm and Cliff run into Kerry on the street and ask for his autograph. Kerry happily obliges, and Cliff enthuses to him: "I love that report you did on that train wreck. They ought to get you for `60 Minutes' as an anchor."

"I'm John Kerry," Kerry corrects him. "Senator Kerry, from Massachusetts."

"Our senator," Norm says, realizing his mistake. Then Norm and Cliff walk away, disappointed, saying, "Sorry, man."

In part, many say, Kerry's distance from voters stems from factors beyond his control. He has spent his federal career in the considerable shadow of Senator Edward M. Kennedy. He follows the buttoned-down Yankee political tradition, not the backslapping Irish model that captures the public imagination.

But part of that gap, some posit, reflects Kerry himself: a politician who always aimed high, and set his priorities outside the nitty-gritty of precinct politics and local needs. His first, failed race was not for school committee or town council, but Congress, while in his 20s. When he ran for lieutenant governor in 1982, one former aide recalls, his platform centered on a national nuclear freeze.

From the standpoint of voters, who have elected Kerry consistently since that race, a float-above-it reputation has posed little problem. It's a quirk of Massachusetts, says one longtime state politician and Kerry supporter. Voters here expect their officials, especially the federal ones, to act on a national scale.

Said former state senator Lois Pines, who ran against Kerry for lieutenant governor in 1982 and now backs his presidential bid: "He does fight for the ordinary person's concerns. He's fighting to keep their air clean, to give them health care."

The Kerry campaign says the senator has inspired broad, loyal support from Bay State voters. And John Marttila, longtime friend and Boston strategist for Kerry, said Kerry has successfully championed issues people care about. "Nobody can compete with [Ted] Kennedy on empathetic grounds, but John gets very, very high scores as someone who's seen to be a fighter, who is seen as a tough guy," Marttila said.

Still, some politicians here have managed to reach a greater measure of familiarity with voters -- in his native South Boston, Moakley was almost always "Joe" -- and gain support and recognition through personal contact. John Connors, 75, a retired supermarket purchaser from South Boston, recalls the days when Moakley parked his car at Carson Beach and greeted locals by name. Social worker Susan Gauvin, 23, still sees former governor Michael Dukakis riding the Green Line.

But DePhillips said that while she grew up not far from Kerry's onetime Chestnut Hill home, she "never saw him."

From his rarefied upbringing to his current local address, on Beacon Hill's pristine Louisburg Square, Kerry never quite traveled in the people's circles. Yankee formality, former coworkers say, has always been part of his being. In the early 1980s, when he was an assistant Middlesex district attorney, he appeared on WCVB's public affairs show "Five-on-Five." Producer Marjorie Arons-Barron recalls him as "stentorian."

Republican analyst Avi Nelson, who appeared on WCVB with Kerry from 1979 to 1981, said Kerry never crossed the line from politeness to warmth. He was standoffish, Nelson said, "not in the sense of shy, but in the sense of elevation . . . if he had been born to the aristocracy and kind of behaved as if nobody else had been."

To some local officials, that lack of connection creates distance. Rodney Avila, who owns fishing boats in New Bedford and works for the city's harbor development commission, said Kerry's office has consistently helped with fishermen's needs. But Avila waxes far more enthusiastically about US Representative Barney Frank, and said on fishing matters he tends to call Frank first.

"He's a down-to-earth kind of guy, he always remembers your name," Avila said of Frank. "I mean, you feel comfortable with him. . . . Not that I don't feel comfortable with Senator Kerry. But Barney brings it to a personal level." Even among higher-level politicians, Kerry is not exactly known for his personal touch. Some stories have made it into State House lore: most famously, perhaps, the time in 1996 when William Reinstein, a lawmaker from Revere, with his colleagues looking on, introduced himself to Kerry as "Representative Butchy Cataldo," a former legislator. Kerry fell for it; slapping him on the back and telling "Butchy" how good it was to see him again.

This isn't to say Kerry doesn't have fervent fans, including some who say he's helped them personally. Three Nigerian-born women who study nursing at Roxbury Community College sat in the school cafeteria this week and recalled how Kerry's office had helped their friends and relatives get visas and citizenship. Now, they are enthusiastic supporters.

"Thank you, Iowa!" Adanna Miller shouted, pumping her fists.

Still, many note that Kerry's work in the Senate hasn't always pierced the veil of voter awareness. Dan Payne, a longtime Kerry strategist, said Kerry did behind-the-scenes work on veterans' affairs and Pentagon waste outside of legislative channels. His opponents sometimes tried to use that against him. In 1990, Republican James Rappaport ran television ads that focused on how few bills Kerry had filed.

And in Senate reelection campaigns, Payne said, Kerry rarely focused on his considerable foreign policy work -- though he did bring it up in debates, as "a way for him to step well above his opponents."

Regardless of how hard those opponents fought, Kerry won. His favorability ratings tend to be higher than Kennedy's, said Lou DiNatale, a political analyst at UMass-Boston. "He's a very popular long-term Massachusetts politician, but he's not in the classic Massachusetts tradition," DiNatale said. And in the context of a presidential race, that could be an advantage. "He might not fall into the trap that, for instance, the mayor of Springfield on `The Simpsons' does," DiNatale said. "They turned him into Kennedy."

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