MY NAME isn't on the list of people John Kerry turns to for advice on how to keep his US Senate seat. Understandably: 12 years ago I helped run a campaign to keep him from winning that seat in the first place. But with the '96 election just 40 days away and every poll showing him in a dead heat with Bill Weld, Kerry needs all the good advice he can get -- even mine.
Twelve months ago, the senator seemed a sure shot for reelection. He had very high approval ratings, a well-stocked war chest, and two successful Senate campaigns under his belt. In hypothetical match-ups, even the most popular Republican in Massachusetts -- Governor Weld -- lagged 14 points behind him. It was hard to see how anything could keep Kerry from claiming a third term.
Now, with less than six weeks remaining, he is poised to become the first Massachusetts Democrat in 50 years to be kicked out of the Senate. Kerry's lead has vanished. His campaign has stalled. "Act 3 is here, and now we are . . . ready and excited to get at it," Kerry strategist John Marttila bravely told the Globe four weeks ago. "We are dying to get to Act 3." Dying indeed.
What's crippling the Kerry campaign is its core strategy: trying to convince voters they don't really like Weld. Voters do like Weld. That's why they reelected him in 1994 with 71 percent of the vote, the widest margin of any Massachusetts governor since 1866. Weld is popular. And for the foreseeable future, he's going to remain popular, no matter how hard Kerry and his lieutenants try to paint him as a cold-hearted oppressor of widows and orphans. If Kerry is smart, he'll shut down the demonize-Weld game plan, and try something else.
Like what? Here are four suggestions:
1. Unfurl the Democratic flag. Independents are a plurality of registered Massachusetts voters, but by temperament and tradition, the Bay State is still big-D Democratic. Fewer than 1-1/2 voters in 10 self-identify as Republican; the GOP doesn't even bother to field candidates in most legislative races. Massachusetts is one of the only states where enthusiasm for Bill Clinton has never waned, and where the 1994 Republican earthquake left no mark.
This is Democrat country. Yet Kerry rarely refers to himself as a Democrat. In the candidates' most recent debate, he took to winding up his rebuttals with, "That's the difference between you and me." What he should be saying is: "That's the difference between a Republican and a Democrat." In Massachusetts, that difference can still win votes.
2. Wade back into the affirmative-action debate. In a 1992 speech at Yale, Kerry gingerly ventured the observation that racial preferences hurt people. "Just as the benefits . . . of affirmative action cannot be denied," he said, "neither can the costs." Hardly a radical idea, but it was refreshing to hear it from a liberal Democrat. Then came a hailstorm of denunciation. The Globe raged and obsessed on the speech for three weeks, slamming Kerry for having "embraced tactics that . . . widen the country's racial divide." He backed off instantly and has avoided the subject ever since.
Yet affirmative action is even more pressing today than it was four years ago. The issue smolders among blue-collar Reagan Democrats, most of whom have never discriminated against anybody. Weld, in a surprisingly feeble speech last year, came out in favor of judging people by race. Kerry, though the hour is late, can still come out against it. It would require a principled fortitude he doesn't often show. But it would be worth it. Campaigning against the ugly madness of basing decisions about people's lives on their skin color would win Kerry thousands of votes. It would also be the honorable thing to do.
3. Funnel support to Susan Gallagher. Two groups of voters particularly dislike Weld: liberal Democratic women and prolife social conservatives. The former will vote for Kerry. The latter won't vote for Weld -- if they have an alternative. Gallagher, the Conservative Party candidate who says she "left the Republican Party because of people like Weld," is an alternative.
Gallagher speaks for religious conservatives who find Weld's ultraliberal stands on abortion, gay issues, and racial preferences unbearable. Polls show her support at around 6 percent. Not much -- until you consider that each percentage point equals 25,000 votes on Nov. 5, and that every vote she gets is a vote that won't go to Weld. The better Gallagher does, the better Kerry does. He would be shrewd to get her into one of the upcoming debates. Shrewder still to quietly tell his financial backers that contributions directed to Gallagher are contributions that can help reelect John Kerry.
4. Praise Weld. Perhaps the best way Kerry can kill Weld's Senate bid is with kindness: By acknowledging that Weld hasn't been a bad governor --- especially compared with his predecessor - and warning that Massachusetts may be worse off if he leaves the State House. It will be hard, after 10 months of bashing Weld's gubernatorial record, to switch to a message of praise. But it can be done artfully -- and truthfully.
A good governor doesn't necessarily make a good senator. There is Kerry's winning message to the voters: "I've delivered in the Senate, as you confirmed when you reelected me. Weld has succeeded as governor, and you reelected him. Massachusetts has a line-up that works -- why change it? On Election Day, keep the governor in the Corner Office, and keep me in Congress."
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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