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SHAPING PERCEPTIONS

The making of a candidate: buffing the Kerry image

John Kerry's surprise visit to Fenway Park Sunday night showcased the politician Massachusetts has seen for 30 years: A little boyish, as he made a stylish windup before lobbing the first pitch to the plate; a little macho, high-fiving the players on the way to the dugout; and somewhat elusive, talking on his cellphone as the camera zoomed in.

But convention speakers and organizers are striving to portray another Kerry, one that they say represents the sum of his long and varied public life: A gray-thatched patriarch of a large blended family whose complicated journey in life has made him wise to the ways of the world.

Few party leaders believe Kerry can win over the country by sheer charm and wits, the way Bill Clinton did. Nor do they believe he can or should embody the anger many Democrats feel toward President Bush.

But in presenting the 60-year-old Kerry as an elder statesman they are trying to turn his perceived weaknesses into strengths -- his stentorian speaking style into a sign of maturity, his willingness to see all sides of an issue as open-mindedness, and his complicated positions on foreign policy as a measure of judgment.

''We think he's someone who's fully prepared to be president of the United States," said Tad Devine, Kerry's senior adviser and strategist. ''We feel he has a depth of experience that's really unparalleled in someone seeking the office of president -- certainly more than George W. Bush had."

Convention speakers, whose lines are vetted by the Kerry campaign, are being cued to emphasize two words: wisdom and strength.

Hours before Clinton declared ''strength and wisdom are not opposing qualities" in praising Kerry, Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois walked around the convention floor and said, ''I know two words here -- strong and wise -- and they're not contradictions."

Less well-known speakers like Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio told their personal stories and then squinted at the teleprompter to repeat campaign mantras such as, ''My friends, we must make America stronger at home and more respected in the world."

The political messaging extends to the decoration of the convention hall, with an electronic news ticker racing around the rim of the arena proclaiming, ''A stronger America."

But the greatest source of packaging is Kerry himself, whose campaign-approved life story is presented in a series of photographs decorating the FleetCenter hallways.

Delegates and media are greeted by a giant photograph of Kerry sitting behind a desk piled with papers, with granny glasses on his nose. There are more than 30 pictures of Kerry in his Navy uniform complemented by other, more recent shots of him in family settings, with his wife Teresa and their combined family of five children. Sisters, brother, nephew and even shots of his late parents in their golden years fill out the tableau.

The photos are an extension of the images created during the ''rollout" of Kerry's choice of John Edwards as his designated vice-presidential nominee. Then, the Kerry-Heinz-Edwards families stood together like a multigenerational clan at a reunion, with Kerry standing tallest in the middle and the youngest two Edwards children romping in front.

''People have this perception of him that's not the whole of him," said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic media consultant who oversaw the rollout of the Clinton-Gore ticket in 1992. ''It's not a negative perception. It's just not a complete one."

Asked how the Democrats would like voters to view Kerry after the convention, Rabinowitz quipped, ''Eighty."

The efforts to portray Kerry as a wise old owl are not merely intended to highlight his experience: Kerry must be father to a blended Democratic Party that includes many delegates pining away for the charismatic leadership of Clinton; still more who are outraged over the Iraq war; and many culturally conservative blue-collar voters from the party's urban constituencies.

Delegates say they were drawn to Kerry precisely because he did not come from any of those Democratic factions, but was credible to all of them. His adult manner in debates was impressive.

''My son always says, 'If you ever see Kerry, tell him to use short and swift sentences because he loses people with those long sentences,' " said New Mexico State Representative J. Paul Taylor.

''I don't agree with that because I think the longer narrative reveals his real self. . . . I just feel this is a very complicated world and I don't think you can communicate that with just crisp sentences," said Taylor.

Even some Democrats close to the Kerry campaign wonder whether the convention strategy will pay off, if Kerry will communicate to the nation the sense of gravitas that impressed primary voters.

On the same day that even the aged Jimmy Carter was praising Kerry's maturity, the presumptive nominee was trying on a space suit. His Nantucket vacation last week showcased his athletic side, kite-boarding across the Atlantic.

''I'm anxious to see what happens, because we're not there yet," said Rabinowitz, referring to the party's presentation of Kerry. ''But I have to remind myself we're less than halfway through." 

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