NASHUA -- Even his advisers called the performance "sluggish" and "unpresidential": Senator John F. Kerry, at a house party here on Nov. 7, left some Democrats in the room bewildered by referring to President Bush's "job-creating tax cut," calling an abortion procedure "grisly or whatever," and offering such anti-sound bites as "the road traveled is the prologue to the road to be traveled."
And then things got worse.
The next night, a Saturday, Kerry gave a rambling speech before 500 party activists in Maine; aides said afterward that he was tired. Less than 24 hours later, Kerry dismissed his campaign manager and relayed the news to his staff by telephone while at dinner.
The firing was made public Monday, setting a negative tone for the week. And what should have been a high-profile moment, Kerry's appearance that Tuesday on "The Tonight Show," turned into an embarrassment as he was upstaged by a dog puppet who said animal refuse gave off more "heat" than Kerry's campaign.
"The dog's insults were the lowest of the low points, probably," a Kerry aide said. "I mean, how did we allow a dog to be the first guest and a US senator, a presidential contender, to follow?"
For the past two weeks, both the candidate -- exhausted from campaigning and strategizing while constantly on the ropes -- and his anxious advisers have undergone perhaps the fiercest bout of introspection of the political season: What went wrong? And could the candidate, once considered a front-runner, now behind in the polls, save himself?
The result: Kerry's resolve -- that he will beat both Howard Dean and Bush and spend whatever it takes and "fight for every vote" -- is the latest in a series of changes for a Democrat who has been struggling to overtake Dean in New Hampshire, Iowa, and other contests to have the chance to take on the president.
Kerry advisers say they are now elevating his campaign to "a presidential level," with the focus on criticizing Bush and making Dean look like an angry protest candidate. By deciding on Nov. 14 to opt out of the public financing system for presidential campaigns -- as Bush and Dean had done -- Kerry has signaled that he is confident enough in his candidacy to spend his own money on it and rely on donors to stand by him. And in Iowa last weekend and again Friday in Concord, N. H., Kerry unveiled a message with a speech laying out plans for his first 100 days as president.
Kerry has shown enthusiasm and focus in these recent events; he now intends to make the case for his own presidential aspirations over the next two months with expensive television advertising, bus tours, and 24-hour campaigning at late-night diners and swing-shift factories -- to begin, he said Friday, once he has the physical energy for it.
"When Dean decided to give up public financing, Kerry had to come four-square with a huge decision: Where is the campaign, and do I think I can win the nomination?" said Jim Margolis, a Kerry media consultant. "He had to come to a kind of clarity of mind about that. . . . He absolutely believes he can win this nomination, and he now has 65 days or so before people start voting."
This neo-presidential campaign is actually not so new: He spent the first eight months of 2003 attacking Bush. Then in early September, as Kerry officially kicked off his presidential bid, the senator and several advisers agreed that he should begin assailing Dean by name as well, as the former Vermont governor drew increasing crowds and media attention in New Hampshire and Iowa.
Yet Kerry came to show an almost preternatural distaste for going at Dean's jugular. At candidate debates in September and October, he preferred to let other rivals attack Dean, and campaign aides said he hoped reporters would begin taking a harder look at him. When Kerry did pounce on Dean, the impression was sometimes more baffling than blistering.
At a news conference on Nov. 13 in Concord, N. H., a reporter asked Kerry about his remark that Dean was unelectable against Bush. Kerry protested twice, noting that he had never used the word "unelectable," even though he conceded that it was a "synonym" for what he did say -- that Dean couldn't beat Bush.
Concerned that the issue might not have been settled, Kerry then brought it up again.
"I wasn't trying to be cute," he told the reporter. "When you said that to me, I didn't realize, you know, that I do remember saying that, you know, I think it's hard to beat George Bush. That's all."
Now, after two months of failing to pierce Dean's lead with direct attacks, Kerry has turned back to Bush. According to advisers and supporters, the more Kerry can present himself as an attractive alternative to Bush -- championing health insurance for children and veterans' benefits, stricter rules on lobbyists, a pro-United Nations multilateralism -- the greater chance he will appeal to voters as the most thoughtful, electable Democrat in the race.
Kerry launches a TV spot in Iowa tomorrow saying Bush has "no plan to win the peace" in Iraq, and has handed out "billions in contracts to contributors like Halliburton." The spot counters a GOP ad touting Bush's record in the war on terror.
"A candidate has to try a bunch of different things, go through various stages, to figure out what makes him comfortable and how to break ahead," said Vanessa Kerry, one of the senator's daughters, who regularly campaigns with him and acts as a surrogate speaker at some events.
Added John Norris, Kerry's campaign manager in Iowa: "We were so frustrated this fall with not being able to punch through Dean's momentum, then Wes Clark joining the race, then the California recall and [Arnold] Schwarzenegger. There was a constant sense of: What can we do to punch through? Now we're thinking, forget all that, just go do it. It's crunch time."
Some Republicans take a dimmer view. "Unfortunately for Senator Kerry, he has had to reinvent himself and his campaign several times," said Julie Teer, a spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Republican Party.
After Kerry moved on Nov. 9 to fire campaign manager Jim Jordan -- who had advocated a tough line against Dean -- there was lengthy discussion among Kerry's large retinue of advisers about the next phase. Most agreed that Kerry needed to do a better job telling his own life story and laying out his presidential plans, and most agreed that Bush -- and not Dean -- should be Kerry's chief target.
But a few aides voiced worries that Kerry's new slogan, "The Real Deal," was vague and flat. One adviser said: "Kennedy-esque, it's not" -- though Kerry's media adviser, Robert Shrum, an ally of the Kennedy family for decades, helped craft the message. Kerry and others said he needed a digestible message among the Democratic field that reinforces an image of honesty and experience. (The "real deal" phrase comes from a video more than a year ago, uttered by a veteran praising Kerry for fighting in Southeast Asia and then questioning US war policy.)
Among political analysts and Democratic voters, there is both curiosity and skepticism about whether Kerry's strategy will work.
Campaigning in New Hampshire Friday and yesterday, Kerry appeared both looser and more energized than he has in weeks. At his new "firehouse chili" events -- where he dons a white apron and ladles chili for the firefighters' union that has endorsed him -- Kerry shows off his personal side, such as his habit of sprinkling "man" and "dude" into small talk. After 10 hours of campaigning Friday, Kerry finished up at a Lebanon, N. H., firehouse with his best speech of the day, and broke into an exuberant dance, his arms victoriously stretched over his head, before the packed room of 250. "He's starting to get a fire underneath him," said a supporter, Leighton Symonds of Laconia, N. H. "He's needed it all year."
"Maybe his new deal, or better deal, will help him," added Carol Symonds, his wife.
Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which conducts polling and political analysis, said that if Kerry's chief attacks remain on Bush, he may have a hard time wooing supporters of Dean.
"Kerry has to become much more aggressive against his Democratic rivals -- a presidential-type campaign that focuses only on Bush won't distinguish him from Dean or the others," Smith said.
At a chili supper Tuesday at the Hampton, N. H., firehouse -- where Kerry continued rolling out his "real deal" message -- a Portsmouth resident, Stuart Wemple, found himself unmoved by the speech. Wemple, strongly opposed to the Iraq war, said Kerry hadn't told the audience a "real-deal" version of his vote last year supporting military action, and his move to his stand against the war.
Kerry said in his remarks in Hampton, "We are at war. I didn't think I'd say those words again after Vietnam." To which Wemple said minutes later: "So then why did Kerry support military action? And why not explain that to us now? I don't get it."
The senator is reluctant to face long debates over his Iraq views. He says, instead, that his best message is offering new ideas for the country. "We've got to stop riding on the coattails of the greatest generation," Kerry said Friday, "and show the historians what they should start writing about our generation."
Patrick Healy can be reached at email@example.com.