If I were John Kerry, I would spend every spare moment standing in front of a mirror, practicing the speech I'm going to give in October when U.S. soldiers capture Osama bin Laden.
The 2000 presidential election was a referendum on the future -- who did Americans believe could lead them forward. 2004 is a referendum on the past --who do Americans believe can prevent Sept. 11, 2001 from happening again.
Democrats perceive Kerry, a Vietnam vet, as electable because he knows Americans are looking for someone to step into the role of Protector-in-Chief. He has military credentials, foreign policy experience and a diplomat's diction. But Bush's Osama in the hole could beat Kerry's three of a kind in an instant. Capturing the Saudi terrorist mastermind is important, not least for the visceral sense of relief and revenge it will offer a grateful nation. Everybody knows this, so it wasn't surprising this week when the Pentagon announced an increase in military personnel along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where bin Laden is thought to be hiding. There's no guarantee of an October surprise, but such things have been known to happen.
The people gathered at Richard Ziman's expansive Beverly Hills home the evening of Feb. 12 preferred to banish such thoughts. Ziman and his wife, Daphne, had been early supporters of Kerry (see story, p. 12), and this was their second fundraiser for the Massachusetts senator. Tickets were $1,000 or $2,000. The list of co-hosts included numerous entertainment industry notables whose politics ranged from the far-left all the way to the center-left. This was not Swing Voters Night. Kerry had just scored solid wins in New Hampshire and Iowa, and the poll numbers were looking strong in Wisconsin. About 300 upscale Democrats ate crudités and sipped wine in the foyer and living room, finding praise for a candidate whom many had just woken up to after wiping Howard Dean out of their eyes. The mood was closer to a victory party.
"A few months ago I didn't think there was any hope," said a fundraiser with close Hollywood ties. "Now I do."
Kerry was not there -- something many people were astonished to hear. If they had wanted to see Kerry, their $1,000 would have been better spent on a round-trip ticket to Madison, where you could see him -- endlessly that week -- for free. The candidate did call in, and Ziman, whose home is a way station for political hopefuls, seamlessly patched him into the Surround Sound.
"I wish I were there," Kerry said. "Everywhere I'm campaigning is so cold."
"We're going to have a prolonged and tough fight," he went on, headlong into an attack on the president. "He's calling himself a war president. They can't talk about jobs, healthcare, the economy, so they're going to try to use the politics of fear."
Kerry spoke for a bit longer -- eloquent, hard-edged -- and the crowd erupted in fierce applause. Comedian Richard Lewis, who has performed for Kerry at such events across the country, took the mike. "I forget that a president does not have to speak ESL," he said.
A few obligatory speeches -- former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and state treasurer and gubernatorial hopeful Phil Angelides -- might have brought the energy down, but Dukakis, bright and self-deprecating as he is, only served to remind the faithful that this time, in Kerry, they have a real he-man. America loves a he-man.
Carole King then sat at Ziman's piano and sang. She has also been campaigning for Kerry from the start.
"I was with him in Iowa when we saw the momentum turn," she said. She sang every song you know by heart from her "Tapestry" album, and standing an arm's length from her, I and the dozens of others crowded around the piano probably would have voted a dead beagle into the Oval Office if that's what she wanted. By the time she got to, "I Feel the Earth Move," the faces were ecstatic, as if people forgot that just three and half years ago this was the party of Al Gore.
The pods of conversation that formed and split and morphed afterward seemed to dare themselves to spurn cautious optimism for a full-fledged embrace. People offered their suggestion for vice president -- Democratic candidate John Edwards and former U.N. Representative Bill Richardson were the popular choices -- and allowed themselves to wonder aloud what kind of first lady Teresa Heinz Kerry would be.
But these liberals were almost all rich liberals, their idealism alloyed with enough weighty pragmatism to have gotten them rich in the first place. So Ziman and a couple of dozen others separated from the mix and entered a large den sealed by a wall of French doors, which they shut.
"That's where the heavy hitting is going on," one Democratic activist said.
The president has a campaign war chest of more than $100 million. Because he wisely passed on public matching funds, Kerry can keep raising money. Jews, few in number but well-represented in terms of political contribution, will find the candidate turning the Westside and similar neighborhoods into an ATM if he hopes to go ad for ad with Bush.
I walked out onto the lawn, knowing full well that somewhere in a leafy Houston suburb someone was hosting the same kind of party with the same number of people to raise money and spirit for the president. There would be a view across the lawn to a landscaped pool and tennis court. There would be a popular entertainer inside, though certainly not Carole King -- or the Dixie Chicks.
Kerry will get the money, and the enthusiasm, building slowly, will come. But his fate depends on whether, come October, he can convince voters that capturing Osama bin Laden is not the only thing that will make America a stronger nation.
Don't forget to vote Tuesday.