NEW HAMPSHIRE -- Leave it to John Kerry to wax poetic at a chili feed.
Kerry has tried everything. He played the sensitive male to Howie Dean's metrosexual last summer by shedding tears, on camera, over a single parent's minimum wage struggles. He dropped in the polls. He tried putting on the tough guy veneer, cussing out GWB in the pages of Rolling Stone a few weeks ago. His campaign went into flatline. Kerry now seems confused as to what exactly it is going to take to have a respectable showing in a state originally written off as a cakewalk for him.
On Saturday morning I opened the local paper to find a huge picture of a smiling John Kerry, an apron festooned across the chest once filled with medals, and a ladle of steaming chili held out to me. The ad was an open invitation to be served a free dinner with a sitting United States Senator. How could I resist?
I showed up at the Elks hall in Rochester about half an hour before Kerry was scheduled to arrive. He was an hour late, so I got to sit around and listen to Kerry volunteers argue over who was going to stand next to the Senator while he served chili.
"What if you hold the bowl, and the Senator ladles the chili in?" said one volunteer, clearly acting as a uniter, not a divider.
"I'm not holding anything I'm not filling myself," the other retorted. And thus another grand compromise was thwarted.
FINALLY KERRY STORMED into the room, indeed showing energy rare thus far in his campaign appearances. He looked like a guy who knew this was it: now or never. Teresa Heinz Kerry followed, looking as if she wished now was never. She leaned back against a giant "John Kerry: The Real Deal" banner, attempting to demur from her role in the festivities before being persuaded to ladle some chili. Shortly thereafter, she gave one of the most confusing introductions I have ever heard.
"I have come from the colds of Iowa," she said, in a lilting accent. "I have been with the great people of Iowa, and, now, I am with the great people of New Hampshire."
I began to think this was an improvised monologue from Dances with Wolves, but then she started talking about how nice people were in Iowa, adding that many Iowans would share their food and homes with her before announcing they were supporting another candidate. "But they always had a good reason," she added.
Looking at John Kerry, I admired the fortitude it must have taken to keep that smile plastered on his face while his wife announced that there were perfectly good reasons to vote against him.
Kerry then took the mike, and I was ready for the fire. How else could he counter Dean? In the opening moments of this "town hall meeting" I thought I was going to get it.
"I want you to not hold back," Kerry told the audience. "I want you to get in my gut. Get in my heart. I'm in fighting form and ready to kick some you-know-what."
However, the weapon Kerry decided to wield against Dean was not the sword, but the quill. Paraphrasing Frost, Kerry told potential voters, "Two roads have diverged in the New Hampshire woods." One of those roads, the Dean road, led to "retreat and confusion" and abandons Democrats' "responsibility to talk straight to the American people." Not surprisingly, the Kerry road is a bit more pleasant. It leads to peace and security. It is, in fact, "the road of answers and not just anger." Take that, Howie.
This isn't the first time Kerry has sought to combine poetry with brawn. After discussing the ins and outs of hunting with a Washington Post reporter, Kerry shared the following verse he penned: "I had a talk with a deer today/we met upon the road some way … between his frequent snorts/He asked me if I sought his pelt/cause if I did he said he felt/quite out of sorts!"
Although the crowd was not nearly as populous as those drawn by Dr. Dean, there was a lot of love for Kerry in the room, save for a couple union guys who took vocal, long-winded, nonsensical issue with Kerry's support of free trade.
One woman launched into a three-minute tirade about how Bush Administration policies were giving children asthma, before finally saying, "But what I really want to know is what you'll do about the deficit." It's no wonder Kerry's campaign is suffering from schizophrenia -- his support base is, too.
PERHAPS THE MOST INTERESTING thing about the long event was Teresa Heinz Kerry's inability to mask her boredom. While her husband was talking she sauntered out back and stared off into the parking lot. She slumped in a chair, head in hands, looking at the floor. She whispered back and forth with Time magazine's Joe Klein.
One of the last questions Kerry fielded was whether he would take month-long vacations while president, as George W. Bush has done. Kerry answered a plain "no," and looked confused when the audience broke out into raucous laughter. Teresa had come to life, and was nodding crazily, "yes, yes, yes." Kerry lost his smile for the first time in three hours.
"No, really, the answer is no," he said. But Teresa just kept bobbing, and the audience kept laughing, and John Kerry frowned, as if he couldn't decide whether to draw his sword or his quill.
Then the poet cowboy got on the Real Deal Express and rode off into the fading twilight.
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