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SCOT LEHIGH

A voice of experience

NASHUA

CHRIS DODD is summoning up the spirit of JFK.

Speaking Saturday in front of Nashua City Hall, where Kennedy kicked off his 1960 presidential campaign, Dodd proposed a sweeping national service program, starting with high school and extending through retirement.

His own time as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic changed his life, says Dodd, who plans to make national service a signature idea of his presidential campaign. He and thousands like him volunteered because, all those long decades ago, a dynamic young president asked them to think beyond themselves. It's time for America to re-establish that ethic, he says.

It's fascinating watching Dodd, now 63, try to claim the Kennedy mantle, for this reason. Although he's invoking JFK, the Kennedy Dodd really calls to mind is EMK -- that is, Edward Moore Kennedy. Like his close friend Ted, Dodd is a fixture in the Senate, a respected member of the body where he has served Connecticut since 1981, a man who has US senator stamped into his manner, speaking style, and indeed, very appearance.

So how can he get voters to see him as a prospective president?

Proven experience and big ideas, Dodd says.

"People are looking for boldness," he tells me. "They are really tired of the small bore politics, and they want some big ideas, whether it is on Iraq or energy policy . . . not just skating along where it is kind of pablum on this stuff."

As a candidate, Dodd, who voted for the 2002 Iraq war resolution, has come to advocate a quick end to US involvement there. An opponent of the surge, he calls for a March 2008 deadline for US troop withdrawal, and voted against the recent timeline-free war appropriation.

What if the result of US withdrawal is a more intense conflict between the Shia and Sunni?

"Well, then, that's it," he replies. "I can't solve every problem known to mankind. There are times, frankly, when . . . there's not a treasury deep enough or an army big enough to solve the problem."

On the environment, he advocates a 50-miles-per-gallon standard by 2017, a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide emissions, and a $50 billion carbon tax on polluting industries. Yes, that tax will raise gasoline prices by 10 cents a gallon or so, but it's needed to accelerate the move toward alternative energy, he says.

A full healthcare plan will be coming soon, aides say.

Then there's the $10 billion national service proposal he unveiled in Nashua : Requiring community work (compulsory volunteerism?) in high school, doubling the Peace Corps by 2011, dramatically increasing AmeriCorps, plus a "senior heroes" program to have retirees help in the schools.

The two Dodd events I attended on Saturday drew solid crowds, at least by usual standards for this stage of a campaign. Sixty or so gathered in Rick Katzenberg's Amherst backyard to hear the senator's pitch; those I talked to came away favorably impressed. (He even won over a John Edwards supporter.)

His speech in Nashua drew around 130, and again, got a generally good reception.

Not from everyone, however. Afterward, I met Dennis Ryder, now 77, who recalled being there for Kennedy's speech in 1960. As a young man who was not yet an American, "I went away all fired up from Kennedy," he recollected.

As an older man who now is a citizen, Ryder says Dodd's speech left him somewhat underwhelmed. With this country's trade imbalance, its fiscal problems, its lack of universal healthcare, he just doesn't see national service as a top concern. I relayed his reaction to Dodd -- and got a window into his view of country and community.

"There is something deeper going on than just the individual issues that need to be resolved," he said. "There is the overriding issue of who we are, where we are going as a people, and whether or not there is any kind of shared experience we have."

Recalling his own Peace Corps days, he concluded: "Why did I feel so damn good, why did I say yes to a guy" -- JFK -- "who said, why don't a bunch of you do something different?"

Watching Dodd reinforces something I've written before: Despite the fascination with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the lesser known Democrats are more experienced, less packaged, and every bit as interesting.

They deserve a closer look -- and New Hampshire is just the place to give them one.

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

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