Campaign 2004: John Kerry
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
GWEN IFILL: Kerry’s near-clean Super Tuesday sweep made him the Democrats’ presumptive nominee and set up an eight-month challenge to President George W. Bush. He spent last night and today rallying his troops and preparing for the campaign’s next phase.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: Tonight, the message could not be clearer all across our country — Change is coming to America. (Cheers and applause) Before us lie long months of effort and of challenge, and we understand that. We have no illusions about the Republican attack machine and what our opponents have done in the past and what they may try to do in the future. But I know that together we are equal to this task. I am a fighter! (Cheers and applause)
GWEN IFILL: Kerry also thanked his most loyal supporters.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: To all of those in public life who took risks, joined this campaign early, hung in when it was tough and stayed with us today, and to all those who have joined recently. This is not a campaign that will measure who and when; it is a campaign that will measure what we have to achieve together over the course of these next months. (Cheers and applause)
GWEN IFILL: At a town hall meeting in Orlando, Fla. this afternoon, Kerry shifted his energies to the general election campaign to come against President Bush.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: We need to change the way we are thinking. I think there are reasonable Republicans out there who know that there’s nothing conservative or mainstream Republican about what George Bush is doing with the deficits of this country. There’s nothing conservative or mainstream Republican about letting your attorney general abuse civil rights so that the inspector general twice criticizes him for it.
George Bush has about $200 million, and he’s going to start advertising tomorrow. We need to be able to answer him. And I am able now to raise money, because Howard Dean and I both went outside of the system, so we’re permitted to go out and raise money. We need to get Democrats all across this country, independents, Republicans who want change, go to JohnKerry.com
GWEN IFILL: Kerry’s lock on the Democratic nomination was not always foreseen. His campaign seesawed from early favorite to dead in the water to surprise Iowa comeback, just as voters in subsequent primary states began paying attention.
We’re joined by two of the reporters who’ve gotten dizzy on that seesaw, Glen Johnson, of The Boston Globe, who has covered Kerry since his 1996 Senate re-election campaign, and Jeff Zeleny of The Chicago Tribune.
So, Glen Johnson, how did John Kerry pull this out?
GLEN JOHNSON: The way he always does. He comes from behind and ends up ahead at the most important time, which is when the voting actually occurs. He took a campaign that in the beginning built off the frontrunner’s momentum that he had, focus on the resume, built a good staff, then was swamped by the tide of interest in Howard Dean and through the summer and into the fall, tried to fight back from that, and ended up focusing all his attention on Iowa. And then employed the strategy that Howard Dean had actually hoped to employ, which was to do well in Iowa, vault out of Iowa into New Hampshire and flip off the diving board into all the other states to come afterwards. And it’s just momentum has helped to get momentum in this race. He has succeeded because of that.
GWEN IFILL: Jeff, does his temporary underdog status when he was struggling to be heard at the end of the year, did it help him in the end?
JEFF ZELENY: I think it absolutely did. You could see him in the summer months when the crowds were small, when he was attracting far fewer crowds than Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt and even John Edwards.
He made a concerted effort to focus on one place. That place was going to be Iowa. The first time I saw his new hunger for this was back on November 15 when he was giving a speech at the Jefferson Jackson Day dinner in Des Moines. He came out with a very impassioned response. It was more aggressive than we had seen up to that point and he started saying bring it on. He meant exactly that.
Well, he was talking about the president at the time. In a sense, he was also speaking to the democrats in the room, specifically Howard Dean. So him being the come-from-behind winner, the underdog was key for the next two months until he finally won Iowa.
GWEN IFILL: After he won Iowa and started doing well, he always seemed allergic, Glen, to the term frontrunner. I wonder if that wasn’t a mind game he needed in order to stay focus as well.
GLEN JOHNSON: He is always very cautious about phraseology like that. Frontrunner, he was almost radioactive any time he was asked about who his running mate would be.
I think part of his superstition — he doesn’t want to get ahead of himself, but he has been very cautious throughout his career to take this thing one step at a time. I remember last year or maybe it was the year before when he was about to run for re-election, I had traveled with him for a year and a half while he was getting ready for president.
He still wasn’t even conceding that he was going to run for president. He has been cautious about going about these things one step at a time. He got to a place nobody else was going to get to, which is everybody is out of the race now and he is the likely person to have the nomination. It wasn’t pretty in the getting there but he got to where he wanted to be.
GWEN IFILL: It was also critical at a key point that he had the money to be able to hang in there, isn’t it – the big loan that he took out against his own house?
JEFF ZELENY: It absolutely was. He decided in December that he was going to risk it all, in a sense. He needed money. Some of his fund-raisers I would speak to privately were sort of discussing how they could gently leave the campaign.
Most of them decided to hang in there until it was over. They thought it might be a month away. So he mortgaged, put a second mortgage on one of his homes and it absolutely paid off.
One of the times that you could sort of see his real hunger for this was on New Year’s Eve when he spent it in Sioux City, Iowa and people came to one of his events and all of his rivals were off doing other things. And I thought that really showed and it showed to Iowans that I spoke to that he was really committed to this race.
GWEN IFILL: Only in Iowa would New Year’s Eve with John Kerry sound like a great idea.
JEFF ZELENY: Indeed.
GWEN IFILL: What was John Kerry’s lowest point in the roller coaster period, Glen?
GLEN JOHNSON: I’d have to think it was his announcement day, September 3, I think it was. He did an elaborate run-up to announcing that day. He appeared on “Meet the Press.” He went down to South Carolina and stood in front of the U.S. S. Yorktown and did his announcement. And then we flew off to Des Moines and he was almost parenthetically asked at an ice cream stand there whether or not he was considering any staff shakeup. He acknowledged he was — wasn’t ruling it out.
All of a sudden the whole story turned from not his announcement tour but his decision to shake up his staff. And this whole imagery they worked months to prepare and try to evoke just fell by the way side.
So I think from that point on into the fall, it was a very, very low period for him. He just could not seem to catch a break. People were abandoning the campaign and the once front-runner, all the stories were about why he was no longer the front-runner.
GWEN IFILL: We had done a story like that. I may have done a story like that. Jeff, however, at some point the conventional wisdom became that he was a much better candidate and began to focus. Was it that John Kerry became a better candidate or that voters began to look for something different?
JEFF ZELENY: I think it is a mix of both, actually. He certainly was trying harder and he was taking every question from every last voter.
He was staying at events in Iowa and New Hampshire for hours on end. I think he was becoming a better candidate in a sense. His answers were shorter. They weren’t the long-winded 15-minute answer to the questions that we heard for a year or so. For a time he became a better candidate.
I was out with him last week in a plant in Struthers, Ohio, a steel plant. These were average working class people asking questions. A couple of the answers went on so long some people in the audience were sort of fidgeting. So I think he became a better candidate in Iowa and New Hampshire, but we’re not always quite sure which John Kerry you’ll see.
GWEN IFILL: Finally, after having covered him collectively for, scary probably to think for how many years, the two of you. What would you say most voters who are going to be paying attention for the first time during this election phase of the campaign, will see about John Kerry? What don’t they see about John Kerry? What is it you know that they don’t?
GLEN JOHNSON: That’s a tough one. I think the thing that has struck me in covering him both in his 1996 race when he ran against Bill Weld, a very well-funded popular well-spoken Republican, and again here in the primary campaign, is he has this uncanny ability to deliver at the end. And in his business, it’s about winning elections.
As I said a little bit earlier, the getting there is not always pretty, but he has a way of getting there. Knowing him and knowing how he feels about President Bush and knowing how President Bush feels about him, I suspect that this period from September to November of this year is going to make the 2000 election, you know, seem like a patty cake game. It’s really going to be quite different.
GWEN IFILL: What do you think, Jack?
JEFF ZELENY: The voters I talked to and he is talking to seem sort of struck by his curiosity. He always seems to do a good job now of listening to them. He seems to be interested and curious in what they’re saying. If they have a health care problem, if their mother is in a retirement home or whatnot. So he seems genuinely interested in events small and big. I think as he goes forward here, if he connects with people like we saw in Iowa and New Hampshire people might be impressed.
GWEN IFILL: Jeff Zeleny and Glen Johnson thank you very much.
JIM LEHRER: Now, some Kerry analysis from Shields and Brooks, Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks. David, Kerry’s campaign for this nomination should be remembered how?
DAVID BROOKS: I guess a couple things: one, Vietnam. I don’t think he would be the nominee without his heroic story in Vietnam. That enabled him to really rise when Howard Dean imploded. I think the second way it will be remembered how he does in the fall doesn’t affect this is that he is the most untested nominee in 20 or 30 years.
The focus was on Dean for months and months. Dean imploded. Kerry rose and really nobody has gone after him in any serious way. So he will emerge into very unfamiliar territory. Massachusetts is not like America. And he will face criticism at his record, about his personality that he has never faced before. I think it is the short loading of this process, which will be remembered for.
JIM LEHRER: Mark, what do you think? How will you remember this campaign of John Kerry?
MARK SHIELDS: I remember John Kerry, Jim, first of all, for being written off as dead man walking by many in the press bus last fall and by betting the farm and leaving New Hampshire, where his defeat was all but inevitable at the hands of Howard Dean, and moving his hopes, his resources, his campaign, essentially to Iowa, understanding that if he were going to turn things around it had to happen there and in fact doing it. And I guess in addition to that, there are certain things in every campaign over which you have no control.
And John Kerry took advantage of the fact that in the year 2004, Democratic voters did not break into the usual factions, the warring factions arguing over theological esoteric points. They were looking for a winner and John Kerry presented himself in the strength of his biography, as David mentioned — and the strength of his knowledge as a winner and he fit what Democrats were looking for.
He may not have excited them. He may not have had an emotional connection the same way that John Edwards and others did, but he certainly filled what they were looking for.
JIM LEHRER: David, you made a point a minute ago. You used the term when Howard Dean imploded. How does that fit into the success of Kerry? In other words, it’s certainly a victory for Kerry. But is it also the imploding of Dean is a crucial part of this as well?
DAVID BROOKS: I’d say 75 percent the imploding of Dean.
JIM LEHRER: Seventy-five percent.
DAVID BROOKS: I think he really is still the story of the year. The most amazing rise and then the fall and the fall came I think partly because he’d made some missteps but he had been making missteps all the way.
The fall came because Democrats, the press, the scrutiny just got tremendous on Dean. He lost his equilibrium. And what Kerry was able to do and this was the 25 percent he contributed to, was he took the Dean themes, he took the Dean language as he later took the Edwards language and he incorporated it into his own campaign.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Mark, without Dean, there would be no Kerry?
MARK SHIELDS: I think the Dean-Gephardt decision in Iowa to go after each other.
JIM LEHRER: I mean Dean’s falling, was that part, an essential part of why Kerry ended up doing so well?
MARK SHIELDS: No question. It was, Jim. I really do think that Kerry deserves enormous credit when he was back there for never savaging his opponents. I mean, he now leads a party which is remarkably united and free of any bitterness or any lingering bitterness from this campaign. And even though, you know, Howard Dean appeared way ahead of him, miles ahead of him as did Dick Gephardt, he really did resist that temptation to go for the jugular and I think that serves him very well today.