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Kerry ’04 Campaign Holds Lesson for McCain and Clinton

I know why former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) wants to be president and how he’d like to change the country. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s (R) message of strong leadership, especially in the war against terror, is clear enough. The same goes for Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) message of change and of bringing people together. I see former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) is running as an outsider who can “fix” Washington, D.C., with his message of conservative change.

[IMGCAP(1)] But why are Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) running for president? I’m not sure, except that McCain seemed to be next in line for the GOP nomination and Clinton is, well, Clinton.

Actually, if you think about it, we’ve all seen the McCain and Clinton campaigns before. Each is an updated version of the ’04 Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) campaign, when the candidate’s message was his biography and résumé.

A friend recently suggested that I go back and reread a column that I wrote back in May 2003 about Kerry, and I was struck by how well one paragraph in particular now fits both the Clinton and McCain campaigns:

“The Senator has talked a great deal about national security and military strength, but he still has based his campaign more on his perceived electability and the high quality of his campaign team and field operation, rather than on issues, themes or the ‘vision thing.’”

I’m obviously not suggesting that both Senators have avoided issues entirely. As he did again last week, McCain talks passionately about Iraq and the war against terror, and he’s built up a considerable record when it comes to fiscal responsibility and campaign finance reform, among other things. Clinton talks about Iraq, health care and energy policy on the campaign trail, and she widely is viewed on Capitol Hill as smart and well-versed on issues.

Still, whether it’s mostly the national media’s fault or it’s the fault of the two campaigns, McCain and Clinton seem to have spent more time building organizations rather than building rationales for their candidacies. (If the problem is the media’s, it’s up to the Clinton and McCain campaigns to correct that impression.)

A strong résumé isn’t enough, though it obviously can be a tremendous asset, particularly when it is paired with a strong message.

Admittedly, it’s easier in many respects to run as a political outsider whose major message is “change” than to run as a seasoned political insider who has the backing of much of the political establishment. But at some point (and now sounds like a good time), both Clinton and McCain need to talk passionately about why they are running for president and what they would do in the Oval Office.

McCain’s inability to rerun his 2000 campaign has become painfully evident to everyone. Now running as the heir to President Bush’s legacy, McCain isn’t the exciting, nonconformist candidate that he once was. He appears to be just another politician to an electorate that is extremely suspicious of politicians.

McCain’s campaign needs to address that problem somehow if the candidate is going to reignite true interest and excitement in his campaign.

Twelve months ago, the Arizona Senator’s “electability” looked to be an important asset, because he was widely seen as the one Republican who could defeat Clinton in a general election. But Giuliani’s candidacy has changed that, eliminating McCain’s appeal among those Republicans whose main concern was holding the White House.

Clinton’s best message may well be competence, but that is a message that is about exciting as a week-old halibut. And she often is so scripted that she, like McCain, looks like merely another politician looking for a new job.

Her problem actually is compounded by endorsements, such as New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine’s (D) decision to back Clinton. While endorsements can be an asset, they often aren’t as important as they are cracked up to be. Will Corzine deliver the Feb. 5 primary state to his neighbor, or will Corzine have the clout of former Michigan Gov. John Engler (R), whose firewall for Bush in 2000 burst into flames?

At this point in a campaign, and in this environment, being just another politician is a considerable problem for a presidential hopeful. But that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily fatal for McCain and Clinton.

After all, Kerry ultimately won the Democratic nomination in 2004, though only after he “borrowed” some of the “message” being delivered by Edwards, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) and even former Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.). It’s up to McCain and Clinton to do the same thing this time — to find a message that excites voters and makes them more than professional politicians. They still have time to do so.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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