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Jewish World Review March 13, 2003 / 7 Adar II, 5763

Roger Simon

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Combat for likeability | Ten days after surgery to remove his cancerous prostate, John Kerry lounges on his back atop a small inflatable pillow on a sofa in the lower level of his elegant Georgetown home. Phone in hand, he makes call after call to political powerbrokers in Iowa.

The room is a comfortable jumble of stacked books, Russian boxes, vases of silk flowers, clocks, legal pads, framed photos, tennis rackets and umbrellas. There are invaluable Dutch still-lifes on the red lacquered walls -- and there is supposed to be a portrait of Rembrandt around here somewhere -- and Kerry's lucky leather jacket, the one he wore during Vietnam and into the hospital for his operation, is lying on the floor.

Kerry, in his fourth term as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, now running for the Democratic presidential nomination, is not asking for money on the phone this day. He is asking for something a lot more difficult: love and commitment. In a pinch, he will take like and commitment.

The likeability of presidential candidates has been a big issue ever since 1987 when Maureen Dowd wrote on the front page of The New York Times, "Everywhere you look, the men who would be president are, as the poet Rod McKuen once put it, 'listening to the warm.'" Dowd quoted pollsters, consultants and academics about how Americans now wanted likable presidents.

And in the second presidential debate in 1988, a questioner asked Michael Dukakis: "Now, Ronald Reagan has found his personal warmth to be a tremendous political asset. Do you think that a president has to be likable to be an effective leader?"

Dukakis replied that he was "reasonably likable." Voters may have reasonably disagreed. And while there are certainly other, and perhaps better, reasons to elect a president, likeability continues to be a major concern with candidates and the media, as the 2004 presidential race gears up.

Though likeability is highly subjective, one could argue that from the election of Ronald Reagan to the present, the more likable nominee has won the presidency each time.

"I remember the last Carter-Reagan debate in 1980; I was watching it with a group of Democratic voters," Dick Gephardt says. "Now Reagan didn't have a clue during that debate, but the people in my group said, 'We just liked him better.'"

Andrew Stern is the president of the Service Employees International Union, the largest union in the nation. He has a lot of serious concerns when it comes to choosing a presidential candidate, and likeability is one of them. "To become president in this era, you have to go to a bar or bowling alley or a diner and have people feel you belong there," he says. "The question is: Can you hang out with them?"

When it comes to choosing which of the current Democratic candidates provides the best hang time, John Kerry's name does not immediately leap to mind.

In fact, the array of adjectives that have been attached to his name over the years by the media is truly chilling: "frozen fish," "arrogant jerk," "portentous," "stiff," "pompous," "off-putting," "pedantic," "perpetually phony" and, of course, the one that seems virtually welded to his name, the one he joked about at his press conference announcing his cancer surgery: "They told me they were going to take out my 'aloof' gland tomorrow," Kerry said. "So I'm feeling better."

That Kerry and his supporters disagree with all those descriptions is not the point. Both the candidate and the campaign know likeability is an issue that Kerry must deal with, a hurdle he must surmount.

Which is why Jerry Crawford, a Des Moines lawyer, fund-raiser and the chair of Kerry's Iowa campaign, is sitting in Kerry's Georgetown basement, dialing the phone and feeding him chance after chance to be likable where it counts.

"OK, this is going to be Matt McCoy," Crawford says, after putting the call on hold. "You met him. He believes the South Side activists may all break one way."

Des Moines' South Side is ethnic, union and Democratic, and State Sen. Matthew McCoy and his family are very, very big deals there.

Kerry, who can talk knowledgeably on everything from monetary policy to missile throw-weights, chooses a little more pedestrian issues for McCoy. "I hear you just ran the San Diego marathon," Kerry says. "What was your time?"

"4:16," McCoy says.

"That's great, great," Kerry says. "I remember my first Boston Marathon ... it's a great run. You've got to come to Boston and do it."

"I gotta qualify," McCoy says with a laugh.

"If you want to come and do it, I can get you a number if you want to run this year," Kerry says.

"Fan-tas-tic!" McCoy says. "That is dynamite."

"I mean, seriously, tell me serious if you want to do it," Kerry says. "'Cause I'll get you one."

Who says John Kerry is a frozen fish? Not Matt McCoy! "I think Iowa is looking great for you," McCoy says.

"Can I get you committed?" Kerry asks.

"Absolutely!" McCoy says.

"That's fabulous," Kerry says. "That's enormous. I mean, that is really huge. Thank you. You've made my day. Take care of yourself. And keep in training cause we're going to get you into Boston!"

"You are going to be the next president, there is no doubt in my mind!" says McCoy.

"All right buddy. Take care. Thanks," says Kerry.

The next day, McCoy will get a call from a Kerry staffer telling him that on April 21 he is going to be running in the Boston Marathon.

"No, I could not have qualified on my own; I am a little too slow," McCoy later tells me. "This was Massachusetts-style politics."

McCoy also says he finds Kerry not the least bit aloof. "I find him warm and charming and likable, and I think he will sell very well," McCoy says.

I call union president Stern, and he tells me Kerry is passing his "hang out" test, but so are a number of others in the Democratic field.

"It's a decent crop this year," Stern says, "but I am holding out judgment. This is going to be hand-to-hand combat."

Combat for likeability. Coming soon to a town near you.

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