NORTHERN VIRGINIA -- Walking into the makeshift Kerry headquarters last evening at George Mason University, it was hard to believe the Massachusetts senator was dishing out chili to unenthusiastic crowds of fewer than 50 in New Hampshire a little over a month ago, struggling to explain why he was still relevant. Remember all the head shaking and snickering among Democrats and Republicans when Kerry decided to mortgage his house to keep his campaign afloat?
No? Well, neither does John Kerry. All that time in political limbo must seem like a bad dream now. Two hours before he showed up to give his victory speech for his wins in Tennessee and Virginia Tuesday night a massive crowd had already begun to form.
Hundreds of supporters filed into the student center quickly overtaking the commons area and spilling into the food court. People hung over the oval balcony above the fray, waving Kerry signs to the delight of the tightly packed sardine-people below. Confused students tried desperately to figure out how get through the throng to pay for their food. Trays were knocked out of people's hands, periodically clattering to the floor, followed more than once by expletives.
A survey of the many signs bobbing around showed the width and breadth of Kerry's support: "Pro-Choice for Kerry"; "Firefighters for Kerry"; "Conservation Voters for Kerry"; even, oddly enough, "Armenians for Kerry."
Tuesday's commanding victories followed closely on the heels of three weekend wins, bringing the junior senator from Massachusetts' total to 11 of the 13 contests. He leads in polls virtually everywhere else and has more than twice the delegates of any other candidate.
Edwards and Clark's campaigns are both in trouble after Tuesday's battering. Clark canceled a fundraiser originally set for today, and looks close to dropping out. The only candidate Howard Dean is still competitive against is Al Sharpton, and that's a close fight.
Then again, earlier this week, Dean promised to go all the way to the convention, before asking Wisconsin residents, rhetorically one hopes, "Who do you want to stand with you in the foxhole, the guy who'll stand up when it's right or the guy who just stands up when it's popular?"
KERRY MAY COME to regret this early frontrunner status. Investigative articles on his past have been breaking left and right in the conservative press. It probably won't be too long before he begins to feel nostalgic for the gentle barbs of his fellow Democrats.
One of the biggest changes I saw in last night's crowd was the presence of the opposition, finally homing in on their target. There were more than 30 college-age kids with Bush/Cheney '04 signs and defiant looks hardened on their faces. I asked one of them what it was like to be a Republican activist in the midst of an angry mob of Democrats.
"See that guy over there?" he said, by way of explanation. "He was yelling at me outside. But I was on my cell phone, so I told him, 'Look, I want to argue with you, but can we just wait until I'm off the phone?'" He was about to go on when a girl on the balcony began shouting down to the Bushies. She was holding a sign that said "Burn the Bush."
I left them to fight among themselves.
THERE WAS A TIME, in the days when John Kerry was well behind in the polls, that I actually started to like him as a person. His inability to gain traction in New Hampshire humbled him, and he began to seem almost human, especially when compared to the frenzied spectacle of Howard Dean.
But after the Iowa win Kerry quickly returned to his self-righteous, pompous self. This was the John Kerry on display after Tuesday's wins.
"Once again the message rings out loud and clear: Americans are voting for change east and west, in the North and now in the South," Kerry said, biting another chunk out of Dean's playbook. "As this campaign moves forward we will fight for every vote. We may be a little bit older, we may be a little bit grayer but we still know how to fight for our country."
Before returning to the Real Deal Express, Kerry even incorporated a few of the theatrical flourishes that make the populist soap operas that are John Edwards' stump speeches such tear-jerkers.
"Today, in a rare moment of truth-telling, they actually told us what they were doing," Kerry said, head bobbing, body swaying. "They said that shipping jobs, American jobs overseas, is good for America." Pause for effect.
Then: "Let them tell that to a 45-year-old worker with three kids who doesn't have a job, who's seeing the factory lost, who's seeing [his] job gone and [who] has nowhere to turn."
When John Kerry takes over the world, he'll make "them" knock that right off.
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