Vol. 12, No. 2,856W - The American Reporter - March 18, 2006

Campaign Trail

by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
Bradenton, Fla.

BRADENTON, Fla., March 3, 2004 -- John Kerry came of age last night. At the end of a long string of strong primary victories that made him heir to the mantle of Jefferson, Roosevelt and Kennedy as the presumptive presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, he spoke to America from the Old Post Office Pavilion in downtown Washington, surrounded by friends and fasmily and staff members focused on nine laptops that showed returns from everywhere but Vermont.

At precisely 9:07 p.m. EST, he looked out across a sea of supporters to the millions watching around the nation and said, "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you." Of the 10 co0ntested states, he had captured nine, most of them by very large margins. It was truly "a 'Super' Tuesday," he said.

Sen. John Kerry returned to Orlando, Fla., today. He talked with a supporter, left, at the Florida Democratic Pary convention in early December, when he was still far behind in polls. He returns as the party's presumptive nominee.
Photo: Joe Shea

Thus began the third stage of the decades-long journey of the junior United States Senator from Massachusetts to a job he almost seems to have been born to inherit: the presidency of the United States of America. In the first stage, he came from far behind; in the second, he vanquished all his opponents and won the nomination; now he must win the race.

With all but Vermont falling into his column, captured by native son Howard Dean - whom most once thought would capture everything - Kerry turned himself forcefully to the task of beating President George W. Bush in November. His main rival. North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, announced last night that he would withdraw from the rave today.

"I am a fighter," he told Americans. Then, in a speech as forceful and self-assured as the young war hero who once defied Viet Cong bullets in a sinking gunboat to save wounded comrades from the oily waters of the Mekong River - and then returned home to fight to end the very same war - he unloaded a salvo of tremendous power against a President whom he said was tampering with our with our "most precious" national document for political purposes: to divide the nation over the issue of gay rights..

"George Bush, who promised to become a uniter, has become the great divider," he told the country. "He proposed to amend the Constitution of the United States for political purposes, and we say that he has no right to misuse the most precious document in our history in an effort to divide this nation and distract us from our goals. We resoundingly reject the politics of fear and distortion."

It was precisely the kind of biting language and brilliant insight that is likely to turn the President back into the blubbering train wreck who appeared on "Meet The Press" with Tim Russert a few weeks ago. A sort of bedrock Kerry emerged in the speech, his words ground from a great mill of time and experience that have finally won him a clear path to greatest prize of the modern world: the White House. Here were no offhand jokes, no trial lawyer's closing arguments, no tricks: it was a speech that came from the rock of character John Kerry first carved his name upon in Iowa and New Hampshire, when all but a few had written off as a sad if brave and eloquent loser.

There was no feisty promise, no arrogant vow, no tricked-up observation on the state of things; much of the speech, although thoroughly reorganized and much more impressively drafted, was familiar in its ideas, if not most of its words. There were touchstones, such as his incitation to President Bush's national security campaign to "bring it on," but there was progress past those familiar stops of the primary campaigns. It was a speech that flowed through the strait way and narrow gate in the cadence of marching centuries, a deeply felt, powerfully clear and truly declaratory cannon-burst of force. It avoided rhetoric, and may become a new standard for it.

At Centro Ybor, in the former Cuban stronghold of Old Tampa on Florida's Gulf Coast, I sat with a handful of Kerry national staff members and a few local volunteers who came to celebrate and to commiserate. The national staff had advanced the Ybor City mall's brick courtyard as the place where last night's speech was originally going to be made.

Gov. Jeb Bush reportedly told his brother, the President, "Not in my state!" and arranged with him to have GOP Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee move a gun control issue - one Kerry had long ago committed to vote on - to the Senate floor. Kerry will appear at the Plaza Theater in Orlando at 11 a.m. today, and again in Tampa on next Monday night, the eve of the March 9 Florida primary.

These aides remain convinced that once again Florida will be the principal battleground of the campaign, and they are sure that this time they can take it for the Democrats.

But the extraordinary effort that suddenly appears as the candidate makes his way across a contested primary state is still in formation. Lauren Hallahan, the Northern Tier Volunteer Coordinator for the state's northern counties, has been working without pay for 15 months to organize Team Kerry volunteers like myself in Florida cities and towns.

She was almost penniless, she confessed, after giving the candidate the maximum $2,000 donation and spending countless days and nights driving a battered car from town to town, meeting to meeting, in an endless series of 18-hour days.

As is often the case when national staff "advance" an event, the interaction is fractional. The national people took a table by themselves and did little to befriend the locals, who in turn felt hurt and rejected for all their numbing efforts on the campaign's behalf. It is not a trait peculiar to the Kerry campaign.

For Lauren, the hurt was magnified by the fact that thousands of man-hours by her volunteers at phone banks in the surrounding counties had all gone down the drain, and that dozens who had not heard of the cancellation still showed up for the event. On top of that, the night was her anniversary, and she could not be with her husband. Even her car was in the shop.

I assured her that when the real national staff arrives in Florida, all of us proud county leaders - I head the Team Kerry effort in Manatee County - will be ignored as leaders and our offers of advice crushed like so many ants. But she has worked with great skill to keep us functioning without money, to resolve our disputes, and kept us working for the cause using only a cellphone, a car and computer, along with lots of wisdom and impressive clarity.

They will take over everything, I told her, and leave us feeling deeply hurt and badly unnerved and terribly envious, and then fly off to the next state with nary a backward glance. Then we will have to gather ourselves again in ones and twos, talk out our hurts and talk up our hopes and go back to work to change the world. And on Inauguration Day, at the Inaugural Balls all across Washington, we will dance and drink and laugh and be thanked a hundred times by the new President. I don't know that all this will happen, but I surely expect it will.

In fact, the people who had come were professional consultants from a consulting firm and not so much campaign staff as campaign employees who represent a narrow slice of the effort. They just like to be with themselves. For John Kerry's part, his personal gratitude to volunteers is always expressed in a generous way, and he's almost always willing to stop for a photo, autograph or handshake.

In Washington, he thanked his staff and then turned his back to about a thousand cameras and thanked them again with outstrectched arms. He would be moved by Lauren's effort and try to remedy her plight if he only knew of it. He still remembered my effort to get him drafted into the race in 1986 abd told me in December "I was very impressed." I treasure the letter he wrote me about it.

But for me, the personal issues are immaterial; I was glad he was in Washington, where he looked and sounded far more presidential than his opponent, and gave us new reason to hope for a better world. We soothed Lauren with homemade ice cream and left her with friends, smiling.

For my Manatee County second-in-command, attorney Grissom Walker, it was time to grab all the literature and signs and stickers we ould and steal back to Manatee County for our first Meetup, a 7 p.m. gathering at Perkins' Restaurant & Bakery tonight.

On the 50-mile drive home, we talked mostly of old times and the stories of the carnies that settled Gibsontown and the plant genetecist and theologian John Ruskin who settled Ruskin, and of all the sleeping cities we sped through in the night.

American Reporter Editor-in-Chief Joe Shea ia longtime John Kerry supporter who heads the Manatee County, Fla., Team Kerry.

Copyright 2006 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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