NASHUA, N.H. -- If Karl Rove thinks he can take down John Kerry the way his mentor, Lee Atwater, took down Michael Dukakis, he's got another think coming.
The Kerry who delivered that victory speech in Manchester on Tuesday night was the most effective Democratic politico since the fall of Bill Clinton. Within his first two minutes at the microphone, Kerry had delivered a stinging populist attack on the president and managed to identify himself with his Vietnam vet comrades who surrounded him onstage.
"I depended on the same band of brothers I depended on some 30 years ago," said Kerry, thanking Max Cleland and a bunch of guys wearing the insignias of their old units for delivering in New Hampshire as they had in Iowa. "We're a little older, a little grayer, but we still know how to fight for our country!"
Almost instantaneously, Kerry deployed both his offense and defense.
On the stump, he is seldom so succinct: Digressions abound, adverbs pop up to take the punch from his punch lines. But Kerry has a sense of occasion; he is at his best -- as he was Tuesday night, and during his debates against Bill Weld in their 1996 Senate contest -- when the whole world is watching.
What should most concern Republicans, though, is Kerry's adeptness in attacking the administration's nearly 90-degree tilt toward the rich -- toward the insurance, drug and oil companies, against which Kerry, like all the Democratic candidates except Joe Lieberman, inveighs. The response of the GOP bloggers, talk show hosts and columnists is to accuse Kerry of a culturally inauthentic populism. Teresa Heinz Kerry and her husband, they note, bear scant resemblance to Ma and Pa Kettle.
Historically, though, the Democrats have done pretty well under the leadership of patricians who've attacked Republican plutocrats. Those patricians have needed some way to establish their normality, to be sure. In that sense, Kerry's time in Vietnam humanizes him much as the battle with polio did Franklin Roosevelt.
The Massachusetts senator ran particularly well among New Hampshire's working-class Catholics this week. Real men support John Kerry. How would Lee Atwater get out of that one?
(Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and political editor of L.A. Weekly.)
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