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Inside Politics

What Kerry needs in Boston

A quartet of items for the presumptive nominee's list


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The Inside Edge
John F. Kerry
America Votes 2004

NEW YORK (CNN) -- As the political focus shifts to Boston for the start of the Democratic National Convention on Monday, The Inside Edge identifies four things John Kerry needs to achieve next week.

And then, in the wider field -- we look at races that could affect Capitol Hill, including "Mr. Speaker."

Four things in four days

John Kerry has had a very good July, so far. John Edwards has proven to be an effective pick for VP and now -- not only national polls -- but key state polls in Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Tennessee are showing a positive post-Edwards bounce, giving Kerry fresh momentum.

While Kerry is in a good position heading into next week's Democratic Convention -- a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed Kerry over President Bush 50 percent to 46 percent among likely voters surveyed, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points -- the campaign still has a long way to go.

Indeed, the last nonincumbent Democratic nominee to enter the convention with similar or better poll numbers was Michael Dukakis, who went on to lose that fall by 10 points.

So what does Kerry need to achieve with this convention to continue to improve his fall chances? At least four things:

  • Personal story
  • One of the things that made the 1992 Democratic Convention a turning point in Bill Clinton's quest for the presidency was the convention's movie about his life titled "A Man from Hope."

    Likewise, John Kerry needs to tell his life story -- not just as a Vietnam vet and senator -- but as a father, college athlete, former prosecutor, Roman Catholic and Iran-Contra investigator.

    Indeed, some of these additional roles -- father, prosecutor of government wrongdoing and even Roman Catholic -- could help Kerry seem more human and less political and thereby attract new voters, especially independents.

    Sounds of Kerry's Massachusetts accent could also remind non-New Englanders not just of Yankees, but of JFK in particular. In the end, if Kerry emerges as a thoughtful, tough Renaissance Man, father and heir to JFK, he could end up reaching independents in a way that Al Gore never quite could.

  • Theme and agenda
  • To win over some of the undecided voters, Kerry will need to finally offer a distinctive and appealing theme, like President Bush's "compassionate conservative" idea, and a clear and compelling agenda.

    Everyday voters -- not just political junkies -- need to know the four or five key things that a Kerry administration would do. So no laundry list of policy proposals for voters in St. Louis, Missouri, or Bangor, Maine, but instead his "Top 5" that you can take to the bank.

  • Kick-ass moment
  • On top, underneath and inside of all of the self- and policy-defining that he does next week, John Kerry needs to make sure that undecided voters know that he is willing to "kick ass" when it comes to terrorists.

    While it galls Democratic partisans that their highly decorated combat veteran has to prove his toughness in a race against two men who never fought in Vietnam, the reality is that he does.

    Indeed, a recent Washington Post poll showed that, by 51 percent to 42 percent, voters surveyed said they considered Bush a better candidate than Kerry on terrorism. John Kerry needs to undercut that Bush advantage, not just by providing policy ideas or stories of his youthful heroism, but by explicitly -- perhaps even crudely -- convincing undecided voters that he can; that he would not just cooperate with allies, but kick ass and take the lead against anyone (friend or foe) who threatens the safety of the United States.

    It seems grotesque, even backward to some, but in this post-9/11 environment, if Kerry leaves the convention without having made that impression forcefully, he may be a sitting Dukakis.

  • Eight- to 10-point lead
  • When all is said and done in Boston -- the personal story, the agenda, the kick-ass moment on national security -- John Kerry needs to leave the Democratic Convention with at least an eight- to 10-point lead in most national polls.

    While Bush senior strategist Matthew Dowd has probably overplayed it by saying Kerry is likely to have a 15-point postconvention lead, Kerry does need to build his largest lead since March by swaying undecided (mainly independent) voters.

    Indeed, one month after Kerry leaves Boston, all of the attention and much of the poll momentum is likely to shift to President Bush amid the Republican Convention. Kerry needs to hold momentum in not only national polls, but state polls as well.

    Ideally, he needs to secure meaningful leads in New England (Maine and New Hampshire) the far West battleground states (Washington and Oregon) and make gains in the Midwest, Southern and Southwestern battlegrounds.

    A surprise bump in a nonbattleground state such as Kentucky, where Clinton won twice, would also be a good, although not necessarily a sustainable sign for Kerry.

    A new Speaker?

    While all eyes are on the Democratic Convention and the presidential race, don't forget this year's congressional contests. There are some intriguing showdowns this year, including Washington's 5th Congressional District and potentially a huge upcoming change in Capitol Hill politics.

    While much focus has been placed on the possibility of Democrats winning back the Senate this fall (I wrote about it earlier this spring), on the other side, Republicans may not only retain their leadership of the House of Representatives, but may actually increase it.

    Republicans currently control the House 228-206-1. A controversial new redistricting map in Texas may produce as many as eight new Republican seats, more than enough to offset some potential Democratic wins in Washington, Arizona and elsewhere.

    If Republicans win the House but lose the Senate and the presidency, the change in the balance of power may have a further -- and important -- ripple effect.

    Having gone from leadership of the three major lawmaking institutions down to just one, House Republicans may vote in a much more combative leader in their suddenly uphill fight. Gone may be the current more politically moderate Speaker Denny Hastert of Illinois and in could come the tough Majority Leader from Texas, Tom DeLay.

    So while the hubbub is going on in Boston and New York, keep your eye on all of this year's races -- not only for their outcomes, but for their potentially dramatic ripple effects as well.


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