Washington — John Kerry's been described as a waffler who blathers, a son of privilege who won't stand up to millionaires, a Washington insider who's a handmaiden to special interests and an inconsistent candidate whose word is no good.
All of that comes from fellow Democrats who ran against Kerry in the presidential primary race but now are pledged to help elect him president. The also-rans in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination have supplied plenty of rhetorical ammunition that Republicans could refire in the fall campaign, although the strategy is not without risks.
It happens every primary election season, to one degree or another: Rivals for their party's nomination criticize one another, then drop out, shake hands, plaster a smile on their faces and close ranks behind whoever ultimately gets the prize. All those nasty sound bites are forgotten, unless somebody from the other side decides to dredge them up.
Here is what Wesley Clark had to say about Kerry (and fellow rival John Edwards) on Feb. 5: "The American people don't want another Washington insider who never plays it straight. They don't want a follower who makes decisions by licking his finger and sticking it up in the wind."
This is what Clark had to say about Kerry eight days later, after abandoning his own quest for the presidency: "I believe John Kerry has the right experience, the right values and the right leadership and character to beat George W. Bush."
Edwards, known as the nice guy in the campaign, soft-pedaled his criticisms, but nonetheless was happy to cast the four-term Massachusetts senator as "somebody who spent most of their life in politics" and unlikely to bring about needed changes. Stressing his own working-class upbringing, Edwards argued on Feb. 24, "this is something that crowd in Washington just doesn't get."
One week later, when he dropped out of the race, Edwards praised Kerry as a man who has "fought for and will continue to fight for the things that all of us believe in. ... The truth of the matter is that John Kerry has what it takes, right here in his heart, to be president of the United States."
Some of the harshest criticism of Kerry came from former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who pledged to support the Democratic nominee when he pulled out of the race. Despite a considerable amount of bad blood between the two candidates, Dean said Wednesday that he'd be visiting Kerry in Boston next week to help map strategy for beating President Bush.
Here's a sampling of what Dean had to say about Kerry in earlier days:
- "President Kerry? Please, spare us."
- "He's going to turn out to be just like George Bush."
- "John Kerry is part of the corrupt political culture in Washington."
- "It appears that his word is no good."
- "I'm just incensed by his hypocrisy."
By historical standards, this year's Democratic primary was a relatively tame affair, absent some of the harsher rhetoric of campaigns past. And presidential historian Henry Graff said voters are so used to the ritual they won't take the negative words too seriously.