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WEB EXCLUSIVE | SCOT LEHIGH

Pondering a second act for Kerry

IS JOHN KERRY'S future behind him?

Put another way, is the 2008 presidential campaign that Kerry hopes to wage merely a political pipe dream given his 2004 loss, or could he actually be a serious candidate?

Kerry obviously thinks he's viable.

Queried recently on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" about a Gentlemen's Quarterly story portraying him as a skunk at a Democratic garden party, the senator all but dropped the pretense that the prospect of a second presidential campaign lies too far off to contemplate, and instead made it clear that the derision of Democratic insiders wouldn't affect his decision.

When Stephanopoulos noted that the Democrats haven't nominated a previous loser since Adlai Stevenson in 1956, Kerry cited the second-time-around victories for Richard Nixon and, after a fashion, Ronald Reagan.

"Maybe the Republicans know something we don't," he said.

Still, if one is to believe GQ, the party's Washington establishment wishes the 2004 nominee would simply wander off into that lonely wilderness where Democratic losers usually go.

Actually, Kerry is in better shape than that.

If there's no big appetite for a second Kerry campaign, it's also true that he has largely escaped the scathing recriminations that have faced other failed nominees.

As with most things Kerry, his 2004 campaign lends itself to several interpretations.

Although he likes to note that he was just half a football stadium away from winning in Ohio, which would have given him an Electoral College victory, it's also true that nationally, Kerry ran 3 million votes behind George W. Bush, a president whose polling numbers were so bad many Democrats felt he couldn't be reelected.

While Kerry defenders justifiably cite his crisp, focused, poll-moving debate performances as the campaign highlight, he had several conspicuous low points as well. Certainly "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it" will live in self-immolating infamy. And after repeatedly warning Republicans not to challenge his patriotism, Kerry was remarkably flat-footed when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth distorted his war record.

So in a party that loves the next new thing, Kerry would certainly have to demonstrate that his previous turn around the track has left him tougher, wiser, better prepared, and less stumble-prone than his rivals -- and there, the jury is still out.

But if he could prove the value of seasoning, where would Kerry be left? Rather like one of the Republicans he cited on ABC: Richard Nixon.

That is, like Nixon post 1964. The former vice president had lost a close presidential election in 1960, then, with his 1962 defeat for governor of California, had left public life in a huff, declaring the press wouldn't have him to kick around anymore.

Yet with hard work, his loser's patina eventually wore off.

Nixon was hardly the instant front-runner when Republicans began casting about for candidates after Barry Goldwater's crushing defeat in 1964, but in working hard for the party in the 1966 midterm elections, he positioned himself as a distinct 1968 possibility.

And when Michigan Governor George Romney's front-running candidacy eventually collapsed, Nixon went on to become the 1968 nominee.

Kerry, like Nixon, would hardly start as the favorite for his party's nomination. That would obviously be Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

And yet, Clinton's polling numbers probably reflect as much nostalgia for her husband's presidency as they do genuine support for the New York senator herself, who hasn't displayed his political skill or nimbleness.

Moreover, several recent polls -- one showing her being beaten handily by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona; another revealing that a (slim) majority of registered voters polled said they would never vote for her - have Democratic insiders edgy.

What state could Hillary Clinton win that he didn't, Kerry has pointedly asked some associates?

Now, Clinton may prove unstoppable in the primaries. But from today's vantage point, the Democratic early-going seems likely to become a struggle to see what candidate emerges as her principal rival.

There, Kerry has some distinct pluses. Start with $15 million in his campaign kitty, a sizable advantage in a race that will leave most of the new faces scrambling for table stakes.

Indeed, perhaps only Clinton and the wealthy Mark Warner, attractive as the popular, moderate former governor of Virginia, would be as well-funded.

Despite the disdain some Washington types have for him, Kerry remains reasonably well thought of by grass-roots Democrats, which is important in a crowded field. In 2004, his status as a second choice for many primary voters gave him room to grow when others faltered.

He's also maintained an online community, one that generated 3,000,000 responses of one sort or another last year. Meanwhile, he raised almost $5 million from more than 120,000 contributors in 2005, and gave $3 million to Democratic causes.

All bets would be off if Al Gore got in (though that's currently considered unlikely). Gore could also raise the money needed. As the former vice president, his national security credentials trump Kerry's, and as the popular vote winner from 2000, he has a better claim to electability. And the drama of a Gore-Clinton clash would leave a second Kerry effort robbed of oxygen.

Still, easy as he is to caricature as a political zombie, in a Gore-free campaign, Kerry simply can't be written off. Although he wouldn't start with the best hand, he still holds enough solid cards to count as a serious player.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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