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JOAN VENNOCHI

It's the candidate who counts

IT'S THE candidate, not the consultants.

A new circle of advisers can hand John Kerry a new line of attack, such as stating that the W in his opponent's name stands for "wrong." But they can't stop Kerry from holding up a rifle he received as a gift while visiting Racine, W. Va., and quipping, "I thank you for the gift, but I can't take it to the debate with me."

Consultants can persuade Kerry to recycle Howard Dean's effective critique of the conflict in Iraq as "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time." But they can't erase Kerry's recent statement that he would vote for the war knowing what he knows today, nor can he eliminate his litany of back-and-forth statements regarding Iraq and Saddam Hussein. (See the link to kerryoniraq.com on the Republican National Committee website.)

Democrats continue to believe that if only they put the right people in the back room or on the candidate's airplane, they will defeat George W. Bush. Strategy counts, but the candidate counts more. Bill Clinton, not James Carville or Paul Begala, won election and reelection.

No one is yet writing off Kerry's presidential aspirations, given his history of strong finishes. However, no one should overstate those finishes, either. Kerry's Massachusetts victories came in a state dominated by liberal voters who valued liberal ideology over personality. His presidential primary season victories began with Dean's momentous collapse in Iowa.

And the dynamics of Kerry's national campaign differ from any political race he waged in the past. This time around, Kerry is wary of embracing his natural liberal constituency. So liberals must trust that the gun-waving candidate who says he would vote all over again to authorize war will turn into a president who will put down the hunting rifle and bring home the troops as soon as possible.

This obvious political charade does not engender strong passion. The left is resigned to Kerry, the right to Bush. Everyone else looks at the two candidates and tries to decide whether they want the incumbent -- a candidate committed to one mistaken policy -- or the challenger -- a candidate committed to shifting policies -- running the country.

That makes personality -- or likability -- the driving force in the campaign for the undecided voter.

To that end, political advisers should keep Kerry away from large pools of water that tempt him to wind-surf. Advisers can toughen up his rhetoric and sharpen his political advertising. But they can't change his longwinded speaking style, his long history of political calculation, or his Senate-bred instinct to equivocate. Anyone-but-Bush advocates should weigh in now with angry e-mails deriding the president as a smirking, draft-dodging dummy who is being marketed to gullible Americans by a passel of evil political strategists. Enough average Americans agree or the incumbent wouldn't be in such political trouble. Even so, Bush the candidate is so far more successful than Kerry the candidate.

Part of his success is due to issue framing. "Am I safe or not?" is a more compelling question, than "Will I have a job or not?" That is especially true as Americans approach the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and view horrifying pictures out of Russia, where hundreds of school children, parents, and teachers were killed after terrorists took them hostage.

But like it or not, part of it is also due to Bush's ease with voters, as viewed in snippets on the evening news. There's one guy in a blue oxford shirt, with his sleeves rolled up, as he presses the flesh and tells voters over and over that Iraq is a critical piece of the war on terror. The way to honor fallen troops, he says, is to complete the mission.

Then, there's the other guy. Yesterday Kerry gave a speech on Iraq, accusing Bush of misleading the United States into war on the basis of "false evidence." But this other guy also says he would vote to authorize Bush to wage war knowing everything he now knows. And this is the same guy who, when arriving in Cincinnati on Tuesday night, said, "More than 1,000 of America's sons and daughters have now given their lives on behalf of their country, on behalf of freedom, on behalf of terror."

In some elections, voters fall in love with a candidate. This time around, falling in love is just not possible. The election turns on which candidate is least disliked. No consultant can change that.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com. 

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