EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears in the September 27, 2004, issue of National Review.
John Kerry is blessed with a reputation as a “great finisher.” The candidate himself bragged to Newsweek, “I’m known as a good closer.” Charles P. Pierce wrote in Esquire that Kerry has “won every race that he was supposed to lose.” “Great closer” was the Democrats’ buzz-phrase even before Bush surged ahead in the post-convention polls; Howard Dean is now touting the belief to the New York Times as a reason for liberal optimism this fall. “It seems to be the rhythm in all of his races,” says Mary Anne Marsh, who helped guide Kerry’s 1982 race for lieutenant governor. “None of them have been easy. He starts out the prohibitive favorite, then fades or stumbles, and has what I call a political ‘near-death experience,’ and comes up swinging. Then he gets focused and ferocious and terrific.”
But Kerry’s history doesn’t quite match this blueprint. A careful review of his four competitive races suggests that Kerry has earned a “great closer” reputation while never seriously trailing in any campaign, competing against opponents who self-destructed at opportune moments, and running in a state whose political culture could be described as a Democratic incumbent-protection program.
Kerry’s first elected political office was lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. He had stumbled in two congressional races in the early 1970s, but his national prominence during the Vietnam protests and more recent work as a local television commentator made him the only candidate for lieutenant governor in 1982 who was known statewide. He qualified for the September ballot by winning 15 percent of the delegate votes at the party convention, and then had his extra delegates help another candidate, former state legislator Lois Pines, get on the ballot. This maneuver guaranteed that the women’s vote would split between two like-minded activists, Pines and former state environmental secretary Evelyn Murphy. Kerry poured more than $100,000 of his own money into the campaign. Three weeks before the primary, a Boston Globe poll still showed Kerry as the only candidate with any name recognition; Kerry managed to win the Democratic nomination with 29 percent of the vote. He went on to easy victory in the general election….