Kerry puts the gloves on.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Oct. 16 2004 2:31 AM

Kerry Puts the Gloves On

The "rope-a-dope" strategy reaches its logical conclusion.

SHEBOYGAN, Wisc.—If John Kerry loses the election, a reporter once told me, we'll probably be able to blame it on the mistakes he makes while trying to sprinkle local color into his speeches. The Badger State boasts Kerry's most famous slip of the tongue: the time he declared his love for "Lambert Field," suggesting that the state's beloved Green Bay Packers play their home games on the frozen tundra of the St. Louis airport. But there have been others: his shout-out to the "Buckeyes" while campaigning in Michigan, or his announcement in Canonsburg, Pa., that he would like to go to a local restaurant that doesn't let its customers choose their entrees, because he has a hard time making up his mind about what to eat. In a slightly different category, but in the same vein, was Kerry's request in Philadelphia for Swiss, rather than cheese whiz, on his Philly cheesesteak.

Here in Sheboygan, during a "Kerry-Edwards '04 Brat Fry," Kerry adds to the litany Friday by referring to the local food as a short-A "brat," the way you would refer to a spoiled child. "Brot!" yell members of the crowd. For good measure, Kerry makes the mistake at the end of his speech, too. "Before I get a chance to have some braaats ..." "Brots!!" some women near me shout in frustration.

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OK, it's unlikely to have much resonance beyond Sheboygan, and neither will Kerry's reference to the women's soccer star "Brady" Chastain, beyond providing more fodder for Football Fans for Truth. But the press on one of the buses in Kerry's caravan through Wisconsin has fun with it anyway, imagining a new Kerryism at our next stop, Appleton: "Hello, Applebee's!" or, even better, "Who among us does not like Applebee's?"

Besides, things are looking up for Kerry, despite his miscue. The polls in the upper Midwest battlegrounds are trending his direction, and there's a positive spin that can be put on the fact that many of the most important swing states are ones that Al Gore won in 2000. Yes, it means that Kerry is playing defense on what is supposed to be his party's home turf, but on the other hand, surely Democrats would prefer the election hinge on their chances of winning Wisconsin and Iowa rather than, say, Colorado and Nevada.

The Democratic worries that filled the month of August and much of September have been replaced by Republican fretting. "If you don't have some anxiety you are not in touch with reality," Newt Gingrich told the Los Angeles Times. It wasn't a sign of confidence when President Bush decided Thursday to visit with the press on Air Force One for only the third time of his presidency. And although this election has been marked by an upending of all the normal political rules, a factoid identified by USA Today's Susan Page has to add to Republican unease: "In three elections—in 1960, 1980 and 2000—a presidential candidate has gone into the first debate trailing his opponent in the Gallup Poll and come out of the last debate ahead of him. Each went on to win." Kerry entered the first debate trailing Bush by 8 points. By the second debate, he'd tied the president. The first post-debate Gallup Poll will come out this week.

But what if Kerry isn't ahead? How dispirited will his supporters be if he can't pass Bush after winning all three debates? Next week's polls won't decide the election, obviously, but they'll go a long way toward measuring the effectiveness of Kerry's turn-it-on-late, Mayday Malone campaign strategy. During the summer months, when Kerry pretty much went into hiding while the Bush campaign was trying to bury him with millions of dollars in negative advertising, the strategy was dubbed the "rope-a-dope," after Muhammad Ali's strategy in the "Rumble in the Jungle" against George Foreman. Now, as if it were planned for the finale all along, Kerry has adopted Ali's query to Foreman in the seventh round: "George, is that all you've got?"

The other thing Kerry has been telling crowds for the past two days is that the eyes of the world will be on America on Nov. 2, that the world is "waiting for the United States to be the country they know us to be." This election isn't just about one country, Kerry says; it's about the fate of the entire world. It's a global test, in other words, though he's not stupid enough to phrase it that way. Bush says he doesn't like global tests, but even he wouldn't deny that no matter which man wins, he'll have the right to think, at least privately, that he's something else Muhammad Ali proclaimed: king of the world.

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