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Kerry's Military Advantage

CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer David Paul Kuhn is in New Hampshire and filed this report on front-runner John Kerry.


It is John Kerry the veteran who thinks he can win this Democratic race.

He thinks it was not only the key to his comeback in Iowa, it could well be the key to victory in New Hampshire. Most importantly, he and those stumping for him, think it is the bridge that will bring him to the South.

In four separate tracking polls, Kerry holds a commanding lead over former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in the Granite State. Ranging from 15 to 8 percentage points, Kerry seems positioned to continue his momentum and to hold New Hampshire. To win Iowa and New Hampshire would be a trophy many a politician has failed to attain.

President George W. Bush lost New Hampshire after winning Iowa in 2000. In 1980, his father lost the state after winning Iowa. Eight years later, the senior George Bush won New Hampshire after losing Iowa to former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas.

Kerry wants both states. And although his campaign refuses to admit that it is looking beyond Tuesday's first-in-the-nation primary, the front-runner is going for the most unattainable of political Triple Crowns. He wants to carry his momentum to South Carolina, the state that bore his competitor North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. One of the axioms of this election is that to beat President Bush, the Democratic nominee must be able to win the South -- or at least some of it.

His hand moving slower than his drawl, S.C. Sen. Fritz Hollings waved off notions that this is a divided country. After speaking on Kerry's behalf at a midday rally in Manchester, Hollings told CBSNews.com that the media exaggerates notions of there being red and blue states -- the colors referring to the electoral map where former Vice President Al Gore won the bulk of the coastal states and President Bush won most of the Midwestern and Southern states.

"We are one country. (Kerry) won't have any difficulty in the South," said Hollings. "The one thing we do require is that military. Whether it's Texas or Florida, it's just been that way and he's got that in spades. That translates."

Having the soon-to-be retired Sen. Hollings, a towering figure in South Carolina Democratic politics, stumping for you is an important endorsement for Kerry come Feb. 3, when primary season hits the south. It is important here, too. Joining Hollings was maybe the most known Southern Democratic veteran of them all, former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia.

Introducing Kerry on stage, Cleland called his fellow Vietnam Veteran a brother, as part of a weekend-long stump for the candidate. A three-time Purple Heart winner in Vietnam, Kerry believes his military record will allow him to successfully challenge President Bush in a debate on national security, an issue Americans have historically trusted with Republicans. Later on, when Kerry took the mike — for a speech largely focused on criticism of the Veterans Administration under President Bush — he said that to this day, he is motivated by the "most craven moment I have ever seen in American politics."

He was referring to the successful advertising by Cleland's then opponent, current Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss (who avoided service in Vietnam). Kerry lambasted Chambliss for attack ads in 2002 that questioned Cleland's patriotism by placing his face beside pictures of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

A triple-amputee Vietnam veteran, Cleland was so shocked by the advertising he did not fight back, contributing to his loss in Georgia. Many a Democrat has said they will not make that mistake again, which has much to do with the party faithful looking for someone who can stand up to Bush, toe-to-toe.

"It is notorious now," Cleland said, referring to the ad campaign. "They will be running the same kind of slam politics against John as they did against me. That's why I'm out here because John's the real deal, not the raw deal that Bush is.

"We are going to punch a hole through the hypocrisy of the entire Bush crowd," Cleland continued in an interview after the rally, interrupting at times to embrace Kerry volunteers. "The guys I love have served the flag and they have taken a hit for it," he continued, citing Kerry's presidential candidacy as the final political cause that he must win. "I'm out here until the last dog dies."

But there is another veteran in this race and he's a southerner. Former Four Star General Wesley Clark bypassed Iowa to concentrate on a victory in New Hampshire. While Kerry's campaign has continued to snowball -- on Friday, Walter Mondale endorsed him -- Clark's has remained unmoved, in third place. Last week, Clark referred to Kerry as a junior officer, prompting Hollings to say during the rally that, "We're going to teach that fellow in South Carolina that there are more lieutenants than there are generals."

Taking off his trademark blue blazer, Kerry spoke to the rally in a measured tone. Telling the audience of about 400 people that up to 40,000 veterans are already in line for health services at Veteran's Administration hospitals, the senator also argued that the problems would only worsen due to the war in Iraq. Kerry also stated that he would rectify a policy that calls for disabled veterans to use their pension to subsidize their ongoing health care.

A significant factor in Kerry's victory in Iowa was his veteran support. His campaign says he has 2,000 New Hampshire veterans currently volunteering in across New Hampshire. Even before Kerry took the stage, the former Naval Lieutenant's story in Vietnam was told in the "courage video," as one campaign staff member calls it. The biography traces his boat crew during the war, an experience that spurred the one-time solider to become a leading anti-war activist.

But it was not until his victory in Iowa that most political pundits thought Kerry could successfully bridge his Brahmin New Englander demeanor to both Midwestern and Southern voters. Well, they hope so. But "comeback Kerry" still is not a sure thing in New Hampshire. Although the Hawkeye State sure did help.

"Iowa's win was enormous," said New Hampshire Campaign Chairman Billy Shaheen, who is the husband of Former Granite State Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. "Five weeks ago, all they were talking about is that Kerry going to come in third and then to come in first by such a large number (Kerry won with 38% percent of the vote in a crowded field). What he did in Iowa was phenomenal for us.

"I've said this for the last 13 months, that Democrats are more united than I've ever seen them and I've been involved in politics all my life," Shaheen said, speaking after Thursday night's debate where his candidate was unchallenged and hence, as frontrunner, faired well. "New Hampshire, the South, they want the guy that is going to take on George Bush," Shaheen asserts. "Iowa said it."

But will New Hampshire say the same? And even if he wins the Democratic nomination (something his campaign refuses to publicly acknowledge as a possibility in a race his Press Secretary, Stephanie Cutter, called "too fluid"), can Kerry win the red states down south? The last Democrat to win the South was the man whom shares Kerry's initials and a fellow Massachusetts native, John F. Kennedy.

"I just don't know if Kerry is a Kennedy," said Emily Sapienza, 27. "I like a lot of what Kerry says but I'm concerned that he really seems like he's from Massachusetts."

"I'm from Massachusetts. I love it there. But will the South love him? I just don't know if he's Kennedy."

By David Paul Kuhn

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