Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announces his presidential run on Wednesday, April 19, 2023, at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel.
CNN  — 

President Joe Biden’s campaign didn’t respond to the Robert F. Kennedy Jr. campaign kick-off because, though there is now a major donor summit on the books for next week, there still technically is no Biden campaign.

What there is instead is an acceptance among most Democratic leaders that they may still have to wait a while for Biden to make it official – and a grudging embrace of that.

To the confident advisers in the Biden orbit and their wider circle of supporters, the Kennedy challenge only serves to reinforce the president’s strength. Kennedy and spiritual author Marianne Williamson – mocked at a daily White House press briefing after her primary campaign launch – are the extent of the challenge Biden has drawn.

The Democratic National Committee has made very clear, meanwhile, that the party apparatus is aligned with Biden. No plans for primary debates are underway. A White House aide did not respond when asked for comment about Kennedy’s kick-off.

The furthest that New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley, who has been critical of Biden’s efforts to stop his state from holding its traditional first-in-the-nation primary, would go when asked about Kennedy’s candidacy was to say, “You just never know what catches the fancy of the voters.”

“I think the president’s done a fantastic job. The amount of accomplishments is simply breathtaking,” Buckley said. “I don’t see a singular issue galvanizing opposition to him.”

For at least a few hours on Wednesday, though, it looked like a real challenge. Like the bar across Boston Common that has the iconic “Cheers” sign but doesn’t actually look much like the set of the sitcom inside, Kennedy launch event at the Boston Park Plaza – with the “I’m a Kennedy Democrat” signs waving, the security with earpieces buzzing around – could, with a squint, look like any of the many campaigns from his famous family, including two against incumbent Democratic presidents, both of which ended with Republican wins.

What many attendees were there for, they said, was Kennedy-style truth telling. What many of them cheered most loudly for through his meandering speech – “this is what happens when you censor somebody for 18 years,” he joked with an hour left to go – were the oblique references to his Covid-19 vaccine skepticism. That skepticism has ostracized Kennedy from nearly every scientist, most Democratic leaders and many members of his family.

Kennedy acknowledged that distance from his family, previously reported by CNN, by naming those family members who did attend the event, as well as others he said had written him “beautiful letters of love” about his launch even though they are opposed to him running.

Inside the crowded ballroom on Wednesday, Kennedy told hundreds of supporters he knows he’s already being counted out.

That, he said, was part of the point, and what made him just like his father and namesake, whose 1968 primary campaign took on Lyndon Johnson.

“He was running against a president in his own party. He was running against a war. He was running at a time of unprecedented polarization in our country,” Kennedy said, calling his father getting into the 1968 race feeling like he had no chance to win.

“That hopelessness of his campaign,” Kennedy said, “freed him to tell the truth to the American people.”

Among many grievances, vaccine skepticism gets most applause

Former Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a two-time presidential candidate from the left, compared Kennedy to Paul Revere in his own introduction of the candidate. Kennedy noted that he’d timed his campaign launch to the anniversary of that ride, even reciting a bit of the famous Henry Longfellow poem, which he noted his grandmother Rose had made all her 29 grandchildren memorize.

A new American Revolution is coming, he said, calling his campaign a mission to “end the corrupt merger of state and corporate power.”

But much of Kennedy’s speech returned to themes of how he had been trying to tell people what he thought was right, despite the government working against him – whether in his environmental work or when he called for an end to Covid-19 lockdowns.

As a corner of Twitter lit up with “Curb Your Enthusiasm” jokes following the introduction of his wife Cheryl Hines (a star in the show), Kennedy plowed through his concerns at length. There were mentions of the CIA. There were mentions of the butterflies he worried his grandchildren would never get to see because of environmental degradation and the songbirds they’d never get to hear. There was an extended critique of the American health care system, which he said has failed in not effectively treating chronic diseases. “If I have not significantly dropped the number of children with chronic disease by the end of my second term, I do not want to get reelected,” he said. There were questions about whether the war in Ukraine is in the national interest.

Kennedy knows he gets dismissed as a purveyor of misinformation, he said in his speech, but “a lot of the misinformation is just statements that depart from government orthodoxy.”

More than an hour into his speech, the crowd erupted as he spoke about the rise in autism diagnoses since 1989, arguing that he has never met someone his age with autism.

“Why aren’t we asking the question – what happened?” Kennedy asked.

Over two hours – including when a fire alarm briefly interrupted the speech – Kennedy never explicitly said the word “vaccine” once.

“He’s a truth teller,” said Rich Prunier, a native of Worcester, Massachusetts, who remembered meeting John F. Kennedy during his 1956 Senate campaign and attended Wednesday’s event.

Asked what he felt Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. tells the truth about, Prunier said, “name a subject.” His wife – wearing a matching “I’m a Kennedy Democrat” 2024 T-shirt – held up her copy of Kennedy’s book about “The Real Anthony Fauci.”

Prunier, who said he has received other vaccines but none of the Covid-19 shots, said he had voted for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination in 2016 and 2020, but abstained in the 2020 general election because he didn’t like Biden or Donald Trump. He said he just peeled his Sanders bumper sticker off and will soon be replacing it with the Kennedy one he just picked up.

Elsewhere in the crowd, a small group posed for an iPhone photo while saying, “Freedom!”

Karen Huntley, a 60-year-old bookkeeper who’d come from Connecticut after reading about the launch from a well-known vaccine skeptic, said she wasn’t ready to commit but that Kennedy “sounds like a good candidate” because of his position on vaccines.

Huntley said she’d voted for Trump twice, but wouldn’t again – because of Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration effort that helped accelerate development of the Covid-19 vaccine.

“I consider Trump the father of the vaccine,” she said.

His opposition to the vaccine, many leading Democrats say, disqualified Kennedy immediately.

“Being a vaccine denier and causing harm to public health is not progressive,” California Democratic Rep. Robert Garcia, one of the newest progressive leaders elected to Congress, told CNN. “The Democratic Party – and the progressive wing – will be solidly behind President Biden. There is no support or appetite for a challenger.”

Muddled ties to Trump’s orbit

Vaccine skepticism led Kennedy to a meeting at Trump Tower during the 2016 transition, after which he said the then-president-elect asked him to chair a commission on vaccines (the Trump transition later denied this, and the commission never came to be).

Asked back then what his father or late uncles Ted Kennedy or John F. Kennedy would think of Trump as president, Robert F. Kennedy said, “He’s probably come into office less encumbered by ideology or by obligations than anybody who’s won the presidency since Andrew Jackson. We’ll see what happens.”

By 2020, he said he had fully turned on Trump.

“He’s a bully, and I don’t like bullies, and that’s part of American tradition. I think in many ways he’s discredited the American experiment with self-governance,” Kennedy told Yahoo News three years ago.

While Kennedy says he’s running as a progressive, his first interview after declaring his candidacy was with Fox’s Tucker Carlson, in which he insisted that the American government is lying about the casualty rate in Ukraine.

Roger Stone, the longtime Trump adviser and proud dirty trickster, wrote up his own thoughts about a campaign he called “intriguing and potentially substantially impactful on the 2024 presidential race.”

“I believe that if he can pull together a minimally effective campaign, he could garner as much as a third of the Democrat primary vote,” Stone argued about Kennedy.

Stone predicted that Democratic Party leaders would try to block that from happening, but if he turns out to be wrong, “Given America’s state of peril, if RFK performs better than expected, the former President should consider the drafting of RFK as the Republican vice presidential candidate in a ‘bipartisan’ unity ticket.”

But though he and Kennedy were in a photo together backstage at an event last July, as part of the far-right Reawaken America tour, Stone said he has nothing to do with this campaign.

“We are acquaintances,” Stone told CNN about Kennedy. “I met him once. I have no idea who is running his campaign, and therefore no contact with them.”

In a long tweet last week, Kennedy denied speculation that has circulated in news reports that ties him to former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

“Is it a sign of my campaign’s strength that the Elite of DC’s establishment media simultaneously and shamelessly published an orchestrated and baseless lie to smear me, even before I announce my presidential campaign?” Kennedy wrote. “Steve Bannon has nothing to do with my presidential campaign. I have never discussed a presidential run with Mr. Bannon.”