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BRIAN MCGRORY

Hard to pull for Kerry

I wanted to give this a good leaving alone for a lot of obvious reasons, but the problem is that I can't let it go.

John Kerry was asked recently about the possibility that Howard Dean might forgo public matching funds in his bid for the nomination, thereby avoiding spending limits. Dean had indicated that he would accept the funds, but now is considering reversing his strategy, much like George W. Bush.

And here's what Kerry said: "Somebody who wants to be president ought to keep their word. I think it goes to the core of whether you are a different politician or a politician of your word or what you are."

Pretend, for a moment, that Kerry was talking in clear English, which is something of a stretch these days, given that he's making Tom Menino sound like Tony Blair.

But what he's doing, if I'm interpreting him correctly, is accusing Dean of not being a man of his word, and a man who doesn't live up to his word, Kerry is essentially saying, is unqualified to be president.

So let's go back to 1996, to Kerry's reelection campaign against then-Governor Bill Weld, specifically to the night Weld met Kerry at the senator's wife's Beacon Hill mansion. They finalized an unprecedented agreement to limit advertising spending to $5 million apiece, and to limit the use of personal funds in the campaign to $500,000 apiece.

Good government types hailed the agreement as a major breakthrough. Kerry and Weld basked in the plaudits of editorialists the nation over. Kerry described the pact as "a model for campaign reform across the country."

But a funny thing happened on the way to Election Day. Kerry didn't just violate the deal, he pulverized it. Running out of money in the waning days of October, Kerry mortgaged and remortgaged the Louisburg Square house, ultimately pouring $1.7 million in personal funds into his campaign. For those of you keeping track at home, that's $1.2 million more than the agreement allowed.

As he made a mockery of the pact, he did something else distinctly distasteful. He accused Weld of violating the agreement, a charge that seemed specious at best, an outright lie at worst.

At issue was a discount Weld received from the standard fee his media consultant would reap from all ad spending. It allowed Weld to buy about $400,000 more in ads for his $5 million. Every good campaign negotiates a discount, and the written agreement did not preclude them. Kerry claimed it was a violation of a rule that, well, was never written down.

Still, yesterday, he repeated the charge. "The Kerry campaign took appropriate action to level the playing field," said spokeswoman Kelley Benander, adding, "The situation with Howard Dean is much more serious."

Sure he did, and sure it is.

I've had my fair share of exposure to Kerry, having spent time covering his policies and politics. I've broken bread with him in Boston and Washington, bought drinks for him, listened to him at a Beacon Hill bar one memorable night as he agonized about whether to get into the 2000 presidential race.

The unvarnished truth is, I want to like him. I want to write positively of him. I want to highlight his great potential, his uncanny ability to grasp the human plight.But then he whines or haplessly hollers or passes blame as he feels every bump, every conceivable slight, along an uncommonly gilded path.

In this campaign, his answers on the famous Iraq vote aren't nuanced, they're ridiculous. His overall message isn't muddled, it's nonexistent. Dean, it appears, entered the race because he wanted to win. Kerry is running because he thought he could win.

The thing is, I know for a fact that Kerry can do better, and hopefully, eventually, he will. But unless and until he does, the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire can do better as well.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

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