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Jewish World Review Feb. 10, 2004 / 18 Shevat, 5764

Roger Simon

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Gravitas or not? | With his long, deeply-lined face, his slow, measured, almost solemn tones, his seriousness and emphasis on duty and discipline, John Kerry appears to be the man who put the "grave" in gravitas. You can spend all day with him and never see him smile.

John Edwards is bright and sunny and his face splits in two when he grins. His teeth are capable of lighting a room.

The two men, both running for the Democratic nomination for president, do not offer greatly different visions for the nation. Their main differences are in style and background, which is not to say those differences are trivial. Those differences can determine who wins and who loses.

Ever since his surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses, Kerry has been on a huge roll. He has reduced Howard Dean, once considered to be a prohibitive front-runner, to a virtual also-ran. Kerry has not run the table — he has not won every primary and caucus as Al Gore did in 2000 — but he has clearly become the man to beat and now, as Dean once did, he draws unfriendly fire from his fellow Democrats.

Not surprisingly, that criticism focuses on his Kerry's "Washington insider" status — he was first elected as the junior senator from Massachusetts in 1984 — his upper-crust background and his demeanor, which the New Yorker recently referred to as "sepulchral."

Often the criticism is couched in none-too-subtle code as when Edwards brings up his own working-class background to contrast it with Kerry's. "John Kerry and I have different backgrounds and different policies," Edwards says. "I come from a family where my father worked in a mill all his life. I understand what it's like to sit around a kitchen table and have to figure out how you're going to pay for college."

(One might think from that last sentence that Edwards, himself, once sat around a kitchen table figuring out how he was going to pay for college for his children. But Edwards, a former trial-attorney, has been a multi-millionaire for years. As an Edwards campaign aide admitted in an interview, Edwards was actually talking about his father sitting at a kitchen table wondering how to pay for college for John.)

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Kerry, who has a temper that is often seen by his staff but rarely surfaces in public, bristles at this line of attack. "Whatever ways John's background contributes to his life, more power to him," Kerry told me. "I believe that my life experience has prepared me to relate to anybody. When I was in Vietnam, serving beside me weren't kids out of Yale, they were kids from working America and poor America and even though we came from different backgrounds, we grew to love each other and respect each other."

Kerry grows genuinely emotional when talking about Vietnam or when he is around Vietnam veterans, and he plays the Vietnam card often. Edwards, who was only 12 when Kerry enlisted in the Navy in February, 1966, never served in the military, and George Bush has recently faced renewed questioning about his own National Guard service during the Vietnam War.

Kerry shows a masterful use of the political stiletto when talking about Bush's military service. "I would defend the president's choice with respect to going into the Guard," Kerry says. "I've never made any judgments about any choice somebody made about avoiding the draft, about going to Canada, going to jail, being a conscientious objector, going into the National Guard. Those are choices people make."

Many surveys show that voters believe Kerry is the most electable candidate, based on his appearance and manner, which audience members repeatedly describe as "presidential" as well as his experience.

"Experience should not be underestimated as an important credential with voters" says Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist. "Kerry also has a compelling personal background of public service, including his service in Vietnam. And there is also his ability to appeal to the mainstream establishment of the Democratic party."

As to whether Kerry is an emotional enough campaigner, Dunn says it may not make much difference. "Never underestimate how winning can make somebody seem a heck of a lot better than they are," she says.

Kerry says, "I think making an emotional connection is important. I hope over the next few months to energize the passions in people. I think there are candidates out there who are working hard to put the word 'aloof' back in play when describing me. It's fictional; it's nonsense. Aloof is not who I am or what I am."

So how, in the end, does Kerry intend to win?

"Well," he says, showing a decided lack of New England reserve, "I am just going to work my butt off."

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