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Kerry takes another look at presidency

Says loss in 2004 made him tougher

Senators John F. Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy were in Boston yesterday at an event promoting a construction job training program for veterans.
Senators John F. Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy were in Boston yesterday at an event promoting a construction job training program for veterans. (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON -- As Senator John F. Kerry prepared to make a return to presidential-style politics with a classic day of New Hampshire campaigning, he said that the 2004 run left him tougher and more eager to fight.

''When you get knocked on your ass and lose a race, you've got to stop and reflect on what you're doing, why you're doing it, what matters, and what's important. And I did," Kerry said in an interview in his Senate office on Thursday. ''There's a very different John Kerry now who is absolutely crystal clear about how I communicate what I need to communicate. . . . People are going to be looking for leadership."

Kerry's efforts to launch another presidential bid have prompted grumbling from some Democrats, who question whether a second Kerry candidacy would be good for the party -- or even realistic. Some party insiders expect that leading fund-raisers and strategists will push Kerry out before the race starts, in favor of a fresh face for a party desperate to retake power.

But in most respects, the Massachusetts Democrat has never stopped running for president. He has maintained an aggressive financial operation that, since the end of the last campaign, has raised nearly $4 million for Democrats in races across the country, and has sent $3 million of his own campaign funds to help other candidates.

''I only know that I'm in a position to make this choice," Kerry said, reflecting his belief that he'd be a viable candidate should he decide to run. ''I'll do what I think is the right thing to do, based on my own gut and desire. I will not worry one instant about conventional wisdom. It was dead wrong in the last race, and it probably will be dead wrong again this time. I just don't buy into some of the things I hear around here based upon what happens when I go out and see people around the country."

Kerry has about $15 million on hand in his campaign accounts, a figure that is surpassed only by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York -- who has a war chest of about $17 million -- among potential 2008 Democratic contenders. He sends regular e-mails to a list of 3 million supporters and has begun trying to energize them by urging them to lobby on legislation and to help veterans who are running for Congress.

Many of the key figures from his 2004 run are still in Kerry's fold, working for either his Senate office or his political action committee. He has assumed a higher-profile role in the Senate. And since November 2004, he has visited 22 states to campaign for local Democrats, deliver speeches, and generate support for his proposal for universal healthcare for children.

''He's done a good job positioning himself as well as could be under the circumstances," said Joe Keefe, a former New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman. ''In a party that historically wants to bury the previous nominee, he's in a good position to buck that trend."

Kathy Sullivan, the current chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democrats, echoed Keefe, saying, ''I think people like John Kerry. They feel a real comfort level with him. That's an advantage. [But] you have to remember that the Democratic Party, unlike the Republicans, tends to be cruel to those who served as the banner carriers in the previous election."

Indeed, many Democrats remain sorely disappointed in Kerry's failure to defeat President Bush in a race they considered winnable. Looking to 2008, they are urging the party to turn to a new voice to reach out to voters who decided in 2004 that they couldn't support Kerry.

''I'm a very big fan of John Kerry, and I wish he had won very, very much. But I think he's had his shot, and we need a new direction," said John Wertheim, an early Kerry supporter in the last presidential race who is now chairman of the New Mexico Democratic Party. ''I do sense that there is a feeling in the party that he has had his chance, and that we need to move on to someone new. We need a real breath of fresh air, a new voice for the party."

Don Fowler, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said many in the party remain upset about Kerry's inability in 2004 to refine his policy positions into a coherent vision, a shortcoming that crystallized with his statement that he voted for Iraq war funding before voting against it.

''A commander is responsible for everything his unit does or fails to do," Fowler said. ''Senator Kerry has to persuade people. The burden of proof is on him. But it would be a grave mistake for people to summarily dismiss him."

Kerry insists that he hasn't made up his mind about whether he will mount another presidential bid, as virtually all potential candidates say this early in an election cycle. But behind the scenes, his aides have implored former supporters to refrain from backing other candidates. Kerry has made his intentions clear by criss-crossing the country with a vigor that has suprised many who questioned his commitment in the past. And he has made special time for the first-in-the-nation primary state that happens to be less than an hour's drive from his Beacon Hill home.

Many of Kerry's actions over the past 15 months seem designed to put to rest lingering doubts about his candidacy. Last spring, he authorized the release of his full military records, finally addressing an issue hammered home by the ''Swift Boat Veterans for Truth," the group whose attack ads battered Kerry's candidacy.

He quickly sought to defend Representative John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, after Murtha announced a proposal to withdraw troops from Iraq. Kerry, who was criticized for being slow to respond to the Swift boat veterans, said he wouldn't stand for ''Republican 'Swift Boat-style' attacks" on Murtha.

On Iraq, Kerry gave a speech last October calling for troop withdrawals and saying he would not have voted for the war given what he now knows -- a far crisper response than any he offered during the campaign.

Though he has never been known as a master legislator, Kerry has been more active in the Senate. He pushed through better benefits for families of veterans and led two major filibuster efforts: to block oil drilling in the Alaska wilderness and to stop Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. from joining the Supreme Court.

If Kerry does make another run, he'll be battling his party's recent history of shunning failed nominees. Not since Adlai Stevenson half a century ago have Democrats turned to a nominee who had previously lost the election for the presidency.

Kerry is banking that his fund-raising on behalf of candidates for everything from city council to the Senate will build him loyalty that will turn into endorsements during a presidential run. He has stayed in regular contact with his 2004 supporters in New Hampshire, Iowa, and other states; fund-raising for local Democratic candidates and organizations is at least the nominal motivation behind today's stops in Hampton, Newmarket, and Nashua.

''I'm energized. I'm as focused as I've ever been," Kerry said. ''You've kind of got to dust yourself off, and say, 'OK, I took one in the jaw on that.' . . . I am a much better public person-slash-candidate as a consequence of that [campaign.]"

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