CLASH OF THE TITANS
JUNE 5, 1996
Even five months before election day, the race for Massachusetts' Senate seat is attracting national attention. The race pits two of the state's most popular politicians, Senator John Kerry and Governor William Weld. Margaret Warner reports.
MARGARET WARNER: What could possibly have brought these people to a Boston TV station on a rainy evening, to shout at each other across police barricades? Not a demonstration over abortion. Not a labor-management dispute.
MARGARET WARNER: It's a U.S. Senate race debate five months before the election. The incumbent in this contest is two-term Democratic Senator John Kerry. The challenger: two-term Republican Governor William Weld. They've agreed to hold an unprecedented seven debates. And while ratings aren't in yet from their second encounter on Monday night, a remarkable one third of the state's registered voters watched the first.
CHARLES CAMPION, Democratic Activist: Well, we have the battle of the titans here. We love a great political fight in Massachusetts, and we're going to have one.
MARGARET WARNER: Both are practiced campaigners. Kerry revels in his job in Washington.
SEN. KERRY: I just want to welcome everybody to Washington. How many people first trip? Wow, that's enormous.
MARGARET WARNER: And when campaigning back in Massachusetts, he always seems to come prepared to do what it takes to keep that job. But Governor Weld has some moves of his own. The race between them promises to be a classic.
DAVID LOCKE, Former State Senator (R): It's a little bit like seeing the World Series. You see the two best teams, not one team that is great and another team that is not.
MARGARET WARNER: The Kerry-Weld contest is not a bellwether race in this election year. It cannot be said that as goes Massachusetts, so goes the nation or even control of the United States Senate. Syndicated columnist Jeff Jacoby thinks the country will watch this race anyway.
JEFF JACOBY, Syndicated Conservative Columnist: Look, why do people who live elsewhere care about the Red Sox? Because the Red Sox are a classic baseball team. It's just for the sheer love of politics, people should follow Massachusetts.
MARGARET WARNER: When Americans think of Massachusetts in political terms, they usually think of Democrats. This was the only state to vote for George McGovern for President in 1972. And today, it's one of the few states where two candidates would compete to be broad-minded on gay rights, as Kerry and Weld did in their first debate.
SEN. KERRY: We have great difficulties in providing people with full coverage of civil rights in this country, particularly gays and lesbians.
GOV. WELD: I agree with Sen. Kerry. I think it's very important that we not have discrimination in housing, employment against people who may be of any, any particular, particular lifestyle.
MARGARET WARNER: But on economic issues, Massachusetts is not quite the liberal bastian it once was. Walter Robinson, assistant managing editor of the "Boston Globe," explains.
WALTER ROBINSON, Boston Globe Editor: Massachusetts, like a lot of northern states that have lost manufacturing jobs and union jobs over the last two decades, have seen the political demographics change. This is no longer a big "D" Democratic state in many regards. The profile of the state is much--it's much younger, it's much more entrepreneurial. The jobs are much more likely to be high tech, less labor, less union involvement. And in 1994, for instance, Ted Kennedy came within a whisker of losing his Senate seat.
MARGARET WARNER: Democrats still vastly outnumber Republicans here but independents outnumber them both. And like independents elsewhere, they don't like political extremes. Both Weld, nearly 51, and Kerry, at 52, have benefited from this changing political profile. Independent voters give Weld high marks for rescuing the state from financial disaster. They like his combination of fiscal conservatism and cultural liberalism, even if the delegates to the '92 Republican Convention in Houston didn't.
GOV. WELD: I happen to think that individual freedom should extend to a woman's right to choose. (Applause and boos) I want the government out of your pocketbook and your bedroom.
MARGARET WARNER: Kerry has developed a centrist image by touting fiscal conservatism too, though his voting record is mixed. He also stands somewhat aloof from the state's "good ol' boy" Democratic Party establishment. Former state senate president, Kevin Harrington, a Democrat, says he wouldn't go so far as to call Kerry a new Democrat.
KEVIN HARRINGTON, Former State Senate President (D): But John Kerry, I think, wants to have a stamp of himself, for himself, and by himself, away from being cast into the 100 percent left mold.
JEFF JACOBY, Conservative Columnist: In the end these are both two politicians who are reasonably good at positioning themselves not as people who--around whom a cult of personality develops, but for whom voters feel safe about voting.
MARGARET WARNER: Both candidates come from patrician families with deep roots in New England. Both attended New England boarding schools, and Ivy League colleges, Kerry at Yale, Weld at Harvard. But here their paths diverged. Kerry was politically active at Yale. Then he went to Vietnam, commanding a Navy patrol boat on the Mekong river. He won a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts. Returning home, he became spokesman for Vietnam veterans against the war. He helped run the 1971 Vietnam vets' protest in Washington and argued their anti-war cause before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
JOHN KERRY: And we cannot consider ourselves America's best men when we were ashamed of and hated what we were called on to do in Southeast Asia.
MARGARET WARNER: Weld, by contrast, seemed disengaged from the tumult of these times. At Harvard, he took no position on the Vietnam War. He never served in the military, he says, because of back problems.
Both men got their first political breaks while still in their thirties, Weld when he was named U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Kerry when he was elected lieutenant governor with Michael Dukakis. Their political personalities, however, couldn't be more different.
GOV. WELD: I caught the biggest fish that has ever been caught in that lake.
MARGARET WARNER: Weld's laid-back, easy style of governing won him plaudits from reporters and voters who were weary of his predecessor Mike Dukakis's sober style.
KEVIN HARRINGTON: Bill Weld is the type of fellow who will readily admit mistakes. He can laugh at himself. He will poke fun at himself. He will go to the exact opposite of his heritage--he will go to the neighborhood bar and have himself photographed having a beer with the fellows.
GOV. WELD: I've been coming here for a long time. I love JJ Foley's. What's the matter with that?
MARGARET WARNER: So how does John Kerry fit in or not fit into that?
KEVIN HARRINGTON: John Kerry is a very serious public official. Every issue to John appears on camera to be the end of Western European civilization.
MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Kerry says he is working on overcoming his stiff image. He put on quite a show at a traditional St. Patrick's Day breakfast in Boston this year, also attended by Governor Weld.
SEN. KERRY: I heard someone in the White House called me a snore, and it turned out to be none other than the veep, Al Gore. Al, what do you do when you're called so unmerry? I say, things could be worse. I could be John Kerry. (laughter)
MARGARET WARNER: Democratic insiders still give Weld the edge in likability and fear voters will too. But party activist Charles Campion thinks Kerry's intensity will end up being a big plus.
CHARLES CAMPION: With Bill Weld you have somebody who, you know, politics has come easy to him, life has come easy to him, and John Kerry--it's a different situation. John Kerry faced death every day in Vietnam, and if this comes down to a tough fight in the end, I think you'll see John Kerry being the more formidable candidate.
MARGARET WARNER: Kerry's strategy in this fight looks and sounds like Bill Clinton's, Weld's a lot like Bob Dole's. Kerry consistently argues that a vote for Weld is simply another vote for Newt Gingrich's agenda. In their first debate, Kerry criticized Weld for supporting Republican cuts that he said hurt important sectors of the state's economy like research, education, and health care.
SEN. KERRY: You and your friends in Washington have this notion that everything is for free. You can keep reducing and reducing.
GOV. WELD: I don't have friends in Washington.
SEN. KERRY: Well, governor, governor, that is not what Newt Gingrich and Pat Robertson and a lot of other people say. (applause)
GOV. WELD: Hey, there's only two podiums in here. I know you want to run against Newtie, but that's not in the cards this year.
SEN. KERRY: No, no, governor.
MARGARET WARNER: We wanted to talk to Governor Weld about this. But his campaign refused our request for an interview. And at his office last week, Weld declined too. So we spoke instead with Weld friend and strategist Ray Howell.
RAY HOWELL, Weld Strategist: Well, there is no question that John Kerry's strategy is to nationalize this election, to make this election a referendum on the Republican Congress, I have no doubt that we'll be seeing television commercials that morph the faces of Newt Gingrich and Bill Weld, but I don't think it's going to work.
MARGARET WARNER: In an interview, Senator Kerry didn't back down.
SEN. KERRY: I'm not trying to morph Governor Weld into Newt Gingrich. I'm just trying to get people to realize how Bill Weld defines himself, and what Bill Weld has chosen in his policies to embrace.
RAY HOWELL: He's been governor for five years. He's on the evening news every night. He's in the newspapers every morning. People know him, and I think it's going to be difficult for John Kerry to demonize him.
MARGARET WARNER: Weld's strategy is equally simple: Paint Kerry as a liberal in moderate's clothing on the issues of crime, welfare, and taxes. Weld hits those themes at every opportunity, as seen in these clips from local news.
GOV. WELD: When John Kerry had a chance to change that welfare system, he voted no. When John Kerry was asked to vote to tax working people more, his answer was yes. It's time to bring the tough on crime policies that we put in place in Massachusetts to Washington.
JEFF JACOBY: Almost the only things he wants to talk about are taxes, crime, welfare, over and over again. That the--that's the holy trinity of the Weld campaign--taxes, crime, and welfare.
MARGARET WARNER: And he was at it again Monday night, trying to nail Kerry on votes he's cast in the Senate.
GOV. WELD: So you have three votes to raise taxes on seniors between '88 and '93.
SEN. KERRY: Governor, there you go again. There you go again with the exact same distortion.
GOV. WELD: I knew Ronald Reagan--
SEN. KERRY: And so did I, and we don't need another Ronald Reagan type in Washington. Let me tell you that.
GOV. WELD: Oh, I'm not sure I agree with that.
SEN. KERRY: He's going to play by that traditional Republican game book, but he's going to find this is a Democrat, a former prosecutor, who spent a lifetime trying to expose drug dealers and fight crime, who has tried to fight for tax fairness, and who -- I voted for the toughest welfare reform bill in the history of this country. So I'm not going to get pushed around on those subjects.
MARGARET WARNER: In this game of mutual demonizing, Weld has one tactical advantage. Polls show that Massachusetts voters have a hazy image of Kerry.
RAY HOWELL: He's very popular, but his support is very thin, and the reason it's very thin is people don't know much about him. They don't even know why they like him. And I think that's an advantage for us.
MARGARET WARNER: And you think you could fill in the blanks?
RAY HOWELL: I think we can. And there are many more blanks to be filled with John Kerry than there are with Bill Weld.
MARGARET WARNER: But the past month hasn't been easy for Weld. The polls have seesawed since the campaign started. And Weld's standing slipped after some voters, particularly women, said they found him too abrasive in the first debate.
REPORTER: So he won it on style. You didn't lose it on style?
GOV. WELD: Right. That's how I see it.
REPORTER: What was his style that was so good about--
GOV. WELD: Smooth, silky smooth.
REPORTER: Unlike yours.
GOV. WELD: It was a little rough.
REPORTER: You were rough.
GOV. WELD: I'm scrappy, he's aristocratic. (laughter in group)
MARGARET WARNER: Then in mid May, Weld fainted at a local college graduation. When he emerged from the hospital the next day, still shaky from what doctors said was the flu, the Boston media tried to tie the event to the campaign.
REPORTER: Are you a little worried about the image that's been portrayed of you collapsing on the stage like that?
GOV. WELD: The image of keeling over is not a great image.
MARGARET WARNER: The governor was smoother and less strident Monday night than he had been in the first debate, and one TV station's instant poll showed viewers giving Weld the edge.
DAVID LOCKE: Politics are terribly volatile. If the election were held today, you'll one result; if it's held next week, it may be a very different result.
MARGARET WARNER: One thing this is certain, in a state as fascinated by politics as Massachusetts, this race will be handicapped and re-handicapped right up until election day.
JIM LEHRER: And we will be checking in on this race from time to time between now and election day.