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ALEX BEAM

All of a sudden, John Kerry starts swinging

Call it John Kerry's last stand.

There are 77 days left until the New Hampshire primary, and, even with the Thanksgiving to New Year's blur, that is more than enough time for the junior senator from Massachusetts to overtake former Vermont governor Howard Dean in the Granite State polls.

After months of torpor, the Kerry-Heinz empire is finally striking back. Yesterday they fired their campaign manager. Tonight, John Forbes Kerry of the Naushon Forbeses will be man-of-the-people-ing it with Jay Leno on ``The Tonight Show.'' (Worked for Arnold!) We can look forward to seeing some Kerry campaign ads with less of a Clydesdale feel to them, and not coincidentally, a new, flattering authorized biography by presidential historian Douglas Brinkley will be hitting stores soon.

Boston Herald columnist Margery Eagan has correctly observed that a generation of pundits and failed politicos have fashioned careers out of underestimating John Kerry. Maybe they will get another chance.

Obviously the Kerry effort needs a jolt of caffeine. His television ads, in which Kerry dolefully stares into the camera and decries the iniquities of the Bush administration's tax policies, are duds. I haven't watched the debates - no real person has - but the few times I've seen Kerry on TV he has looked drawn, peaked, and tired.

Now, leaving the big game - George W. Bush - for later consumption, Kerry has started to round on the front-runner, Dean. Exhibit A in Kerry's Dean demonology is the governor's ``absolutely zero ... foreign policy, military, or national security experience,'' as Kerry puts it. Dean's opponents and the typists in the commentariat get hot flashes trumpeting the governor's purported ``gaffes'' - e.g. his call for an ``evenhanded'' approach to the Mideast conflict, and his heretical notion of reaching out to the Rebel Yell set. One can only invoke the Michael Kinsley adage that politicians' ``gaffes'' are nothing but inadvertent bursts of truth telling, for which the gaffers are inevitably forced to apologize.

Dean's other perceived weakness - his temperament - may prove to be his greatest strength. They say Dean is nasty. Good. I like that in a man.

But back to Kerry. He is also hoping for some traction from Brinkley's forthcoming ``Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War.'' You can read the first installment at www.theatlantic.com/issues/2003/12/media-preview/brinkley.htm. The Atlantic excerpt highlights Kerry's Vietnam War journals, which are beautifully written and full of insights that apply to our current don't-call-it-a-quagmire in Iraq. ``I asked myself what it would be like to be occupied by foreign troops - to have to bend to the desires of a people who could not be sensitive to the things that really counted in one's country,'' the young Navy lieutenant wrote in a letter to his parents in 1968.

But you have to ask: to what end? The Vietnam war hero-turned-dissenter story doesn't seem to have played very well for Kerry. The same people who might admire his patriotism and bravery might take umbrage at his role in the antiwar movement, another centerpiece of the Brinkley book. The presence of the protean proto-soldier Wesley Clark in the Democratic race has further diluted Kerry's claim to unique military credibility among the candidates.

What's going to happen? Political prognostication isn't my game. That said, I am still not backing off my 1992 prediction that Al Gore will become president during my children's lifetime. And as for my statement of 13 months ago that ``I wouldn't mind living in a country where Howard Dean was president, but somehow I don't think that I will'' - I'm standing by that one, too.

Bushwa alert

On Friday, in the ``intimate setting of the Penthouse'' of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik and French philosopher-at-large Bernard Henri-Levy will hold ``a conversation towards the definition of a moment - Does Another America Exist?'' According to a LACMA release, ``Their answer to whether another America exists unfurls [?] as both Adam Gopnik and Bernard Henri- Levy discuss their future project together: `the writing of a manifesto for another America - an America that is outward looking and embracing rather than inward and fearful,' says Gopnik.''

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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