To detractors and even some supporters, John F. Kerry's decision this week to cancel his speech to the US Conference of Mayors because of a picket line was typical of how he makes many judgments: protracted, messy, and guided by self-interest.
The other Massachusetts senator, Edward M. Kennedy, bailed out of the conference late last week, citing a scheduling conflict. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, let his decision drag through the weekend, even as Mayor Thomas M. Menino grew angrier about a potential cancellation. Just four hours before he decided to skip the speech, Kerry remained circumspect. ''Who said I'm not speaking?" the senator said to a reporter Sunday as he headed off on a bike ride.
Among his staff and some outside observers, Kerry's selection of Menino's short-term anger over the unions' long-term opposition was the latest in a string of decisions underscoring the bottom-line focus of his campaign for the presidency. Collectively, they have contributed to his standing as a cash-flush candidate who is ahead of or tied with President Bush in polls four months before the vote.
''Both of these candidates are focused on long-term victory," said David C. King, a public policy professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. ''They understand that the swing voters will not be making up their mind until October. . . . What happens now won't concern them as long as everything is looking good by then."
Two big decisions by Kerry last fall followed the same pattern as the picket line decision: when Kerry dumped Jim Jordan, his campaign manager, and later when he opted out of the federal limits on campaign fund-raising. In both cases, the execution was messy, but the actions ended up helping Kerry in his nomination quest.
Firing Jordan paved the way for a more disciplined campaign team led by Mary Beth Cahill. And opting out of public financing gave Kerry the ability to raise the money needed to win the nomination and compete with President Bush.
''Mary Beth is someone who says, 'Here are the things we can get accomplished, and let's get them accomplished.' She is very much task-oriented," said Representative Barney Frank of Newton, her onetime boss.
Likewise, Kerry's decision to opt out of the federally funded primary system has been a boon to his candidacy. Candidates who participated in the system would have been limited to spending $45 million on their primary campaigns. Candidates who refused to participate bypassed about $19 million in free federal money.
Now his campaign has raised $136 million. While less than the $212 million raised by Bush, it's a record for a Democrat.
In the Conference of Mayors case, Kerry infuriated Menino by announcing he would not cross union lines to speak to the mayors. Governor Mitt Romney, who took Kerry's place, said the decision highlighted the difference between executive and legislative leadership. ''A mayor, a governor, and a president have a responsibility for making tough decisions and balancing budgets; a senator doesn't," the Republican said.
From Kerry's perspective, though, his decision had a twin payout. Not only did it allow him to pay homage to the firefighters, whose national leaders were the first major labor officials to back his campaign, but it also bought him some labor peace from the police officers. Leaders of the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association said their organization will not picket outside the Democratic National Convention.
''He's coming out of it OK so far," said King, the Harvard professor. ''He seems to be a cautious candidate who hasn't made any grand mistakes yet."