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Kerry struggles to gain clear identity

Demo hasn’t been able to get any label to stick

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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., points toward the sky in Boston.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., points toward the sky in Boston.

Steven Senne, Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — Supporters touted Bill Clinton as a "New Democrat." George W. Bush preferred "compassionate conservative.'

John Kerry?

Depends on whom you ask.

There's the decorated Vietnam veteran; the tribune of a burdened middle class; a former prosecutor and 19-year Senate veteran; a self-described "entrepreneurial Democrat" who wants businesses to grow; or the internationalist who can fix frayed global relations.

Kerry hasn't been able to get any of those labels to stick, despite extensive media coverage of his primary-season romp and a series of speeches designed to get attention. He has little more than six months to make a firm impression on millions of voters, say pollsters, political analysts, Democrats, and even the candidate himself.

"A lot of people still don't really know who I am," Kerry told donors in New York recently.

Bush aides, meanwhile, said the reason Kerry is having a hard time establishing a clear identity is that he doesn't have one.

Tagging their opponent "the Boston Fog" and an "International Man of Mystery," Bush strategists contend he shifts positions to disguise his "Massachusetts liberal" love of taxes.

"It's very difficult to understand what he is saying on occasion because it is so vague and so fluid," said Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot.

With a fund-raising tour of the South last week, Kerry tried to raise his identity quotient. The money gathered will pay for tons of biographical television ads. But he's also delivering several speeches and media interviews, looking to counter worries that the Bush camp's definition is taking hold in voters' minds.

"It's a big problem," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "They don't know him very well. They know a little bit of his personal story (in Vietnam) but not even much about that."

Kerry is also something of a victim of world events that are overshadowing the pre-convention phase of the campaign, analysts said. With lots of news coming from Iraq, Kerry "just hasn't been in the news the way the president has," said Karlyn Bowman, who analyzes polls for the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.

Kerry aides predicted the landscape would soon shift in their favor, thanks to the ads and more candidate appearances across the country. They prefer a single label covering the candidate's plans for Iraq, jobs, education, health care and a rollback of Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy.

"Kerry," said spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter, "is a fighter."

She added: "He's somebody who's taken on the tough fights his whole life and won."

Democrats who saw Kerry last week in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas said he hit the right notes.

"He's vowed to go on TV," said Florida retiree Joan Cartwright, catching Kerry at a community college in Palm Beach County. "I think he's getting around, trying to get people to know him."

Some said that Kerry has the only identity that really matters: He's not George W. Bush.

"I'd love Mickey Mouse if he were running against George Bush," said Heather Wehmeyer, a student and homemaker from Lake Worth, Fla.

But Wehmeyer, who initially supported Wesley Clark, said Kerry is shedding his "aloof" image. She said shaking the candidate's hand "gave me chills."

"I think what he is, is really kind of shy," she said. "That's the way he comes off."

Last week, Kerry tried to show that he is a regular guy. In Atlanta, he chowed down on a chili dog at The Varsity, a landmark drive-in across the highway from Georgia Tech University. Kerry also hosted a New York fund-raiser at a hip Chelsea club called Crobar.

Democrats said the biggest help would be if the sometimes long-winded senator sharpened his public statements.

Attending a Kerry fund-raiser in Atlanta, retired businessman Gary Jones said the candidate still sounds like he's debating legislation in the Senate.

"He's got to let people know he really cares about them, and that he's got something other than the purely intellectual approach to problems," he said.

Republican protesters who showed up to heckle Kerry reinforced the party line against the candidate.

"I think he's full of it," said Anita Pewitt, a 22-year-old student at Palm Beach Community College in Florida. "He avoids every issue. And I think he's full of empty promises."

Democrats said they, too, have a responsibility for defining Kerry by talking to millions of rank-and-file voters that the candidate can't personally reach.

When it comes to undecided voters, though, TV ads are crucial. The Kerry campaign began airing two last week in the 17 states that will probably decide the election.

In one titled "Commitment," Kerry says, "My priorities are jobs and health care — my commitment is to defend this country." In the second ad, about Iraq, Kerry said he would "immediately reach out to the international community."

The Bush team countered with an ad playing off Kerry's comment that a lot of people don't know him, accusing him of "doublespeak" and waffling.

"John Kerry's problem is not that people don't know him," the Bush ad said. "It's that people do."