DES MOINES, Iowa—When I arrive at John Kerry’s campaign headquarters Saturday afternoon for a “Kerry Country BBQ,” the candidate’s staff is buzzing about a tall young blond man who has arrived for the event. They want to prevent him from getting anywhere close to the candidate. Before I came to Iowa, I was conditioned to think of Howard Dean as the unpredictably exciting, insurgent candidate and to think of Kerry as the aloof, preprogrammed establishment contender. This is my first taste of what the differences look like up close.
What’s all the fuss about the blond guy? I ask Kerry’s Iowa press secretary, Laura Capps. “He takes pictures of himself with the candidates and posts nasty comments about them,” she says. I’m not sure, but this may be a historic moment for the Iowa caucuses: The Kerry campaign is terrified of how their candidate will be portrayed by a blogger.
Later, I sidle up next to the man to ask about his Web site, which turns out to be ninedwarfs.com. (Next to a man who’s probably 6 feet 5 inches tall, the nine Democratic contenders look dwarfish.) So far, he’s snapped pictures of himself with six candidates. This is easy to do in Iowa, where campaign events usually end with a ritual that resembles Picture Day at a Major League Baseball game, as voters line up to take snapshots of themselves and their children with the candidate du jour. The ninedwarfs.com blogger needs shots of Kerry, Carol Moseley Braun, and Bob Graham to complete his collection, but he fails in his mission at the Kerry barbecue. Instead, the next day he adds a picture of Kerry’s head on the body of a chicken to the top of his site.
Kerry arrives a few minutes later, riding a Harley. A crowd of voters and campaign volunteers surround him, but it appears that the campaign workers are the ones making most of the noise, a lot of “Yay, John, woo-hoo!”-ing. (In contrast to the Dean campaign, I notice later that some Kerry volunteers and staffers are introducing themselves to the candidate, as if for the first time, and having their pictures taken with him.) A military veteran who was at a Dean event the previous night makes his way through the crowd and asks Kerry if he still defends his vote for the Iraq war resolution. Kerry says he thinks it was absolutely the right thing to do. The man responds, “With all due respect, sir, that was the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, No. 2.”
The man is one of what I call the “Dean veterans”—men who resemble the young, anti-war John Kerry in attitude, if not in age. Kerry has two answers for them. The first, of course, is his own Vietnam experience. The most touching moment of Kerry’s event takes place when he introduces the gunner on his boat during his “toughest four months in Vietnam.” The man now lives in Ames, Iowa, and Kerry calls him “my brother-in-arms.” (Presumably to burnish his anti-war cred, the woman who introduces Kerry before his speech observes that he was “vocal” about Vietnam after he came back from the war.) Kerry alluded to his military experience to make a subtle jab at Dean during a speech Friday night, when he said the Democratic nominee needs to be able to “answer American concerns about security.”
The Kerry veterans, men who appear to be attracted to Kerry’s candidacy primarily because of his military experience, are Kerry’s second answer. On Friday night, a military man told me he supported Kerry because he thought he would bring the troops home “with their heads held high.” As Kerry makes his way to the stage Saturday, a veteran says to him, “Congratulations to you, on your Medal of Honor.” Kerry is forced to correct him. “That’s Bob Kerrey. I won the Silver Star,” he says. After Kerry’s speech, another veteran asks him to punish President Bush “for what he did to Max Cleland. The charges that he did to him, he should have to answer for.”
At the two Kerry events I attended this past weekend, voters kept encouraging the Massachusetts senator, in effect, to be more like Howard Dean. After Friday’s Kerry speech, a voter walked up to him and told him the Democrats must quit being passive. “Oh, I’m not passive,” Kerry soothed. Today, he does something similar when an angry voter complains about the Leave No Child Behind bill. “Oh, I am so furious about it,” Kerry says matter-of-factly. These are questions Dean wouldn’t even be asked.
As I’m leaving the event, I run into a Kerry campaign worker. He stops me and asks me about Dean and what he’s like. He says he’d really like to hear him speak, but it’s not kosher for staffers to go to other candidates’ events. Maybe if he goes in plain clothes, he muses. Everyone talks about what a great speaker Dean is, he says, but how does he interact with people? I tell him I was impressed.
The more I tell him about Dean, the more crestfallen he seems to get. Without mentioning Kerry, I tell him that Dean never appears to be trying to walk out of a room. He interjects: “That’s a real problem we have, because Kerry’s a senator, so he needs to be back in Washington. Dean’s basically unemployed, so he can spend all day hanging out with three people.” It’s only a feeling I get, but I can’t help wondering if he signed up with Kerry because he thought Kerry would win, and now he’s questioning his decision. As I head out to catch my plane, I think that the girl on his right appears to be consoling him.