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Kerry, trailing, sharpens edge

Back in the fall of 1996, a lot of people thought John Kerry was toast.

The sober senator lagged in the polls against popular Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, whose charm and appeal looked tough to overcome.

But Kerry turned it around. He cast the moderate Weld as a Newt Gingrich ally. He ferociously fought off second-guessing about his record in Vietnam. In a series of substantive debates, he showed off a sharp and sometimes personal side.

In the end, he beat Weld comfortably and continued on his path to the White House.

Among longtime Kerry watchers, it's almost a cliche: He's a strong closer with a knack for roaring back when his candidacy is in crisis. He did it when struggling against Weld in 1996. He did it earlier this year in Iowa, holding marathon question-and-answer sessions across the state and finally beating the supposed inevitable nominee, Howard Dean.

Now in the biggest contest of his life, Kerry again needs to turn things around. With the critical first presidential debate looming Thursday night, state and national polls show Bush leading by narrow or comfortable margins. If Kerry doesn't do something to shift the race, he'll lose.

Last week, Democrats panicky over the recent polls started to perk up. They saw hints that the "closer" is regaining his groove and perhaps starting to live up to his reputation.

St. Petersburg retiree Simon Agmann had been one of the anxious ones. The avid Democrat had been writing the Kerry campaign, beseeching them to work on Kerry's speaking style. "Don't lecture us; talk to us," Agmann advised.

On Friday, Agmann watched Kerry on CNN talking about how he would wage the war on terrorism and where Bush had gone wrong.

"George Bush made Saddam Hussein the priority. I would have made Osama bin Laden the priority. I will finish the job in Iraq and I will refocus our energies on the real war on terror," Kerry said at Temple University in Philadelphia, laying out a seven-point plan for fighting terrorism.

When a heckler shouted about the global AIDS problem, Kerry calmly asked him to hold off and promised to come back to his concerns. After the senator returned to AIDS and promised he would mount an ambitious international effort, the heckler rose to his feet to cheer him.

An elated Agmann saw in the whole speech someone who can inspire.

"He listened and answered with grace, intelligence and heart," Agmann said. "It's what I had been hoping to see. I feel a lot more optimistic today than I did last week."

Kerry has five weeks and countless obstacles before Election Day. Thursday's debate in Coral Gables could be his last opportunity to regain the momentum.

Aside from Bush's overall edge in the polls, Kerry faces an electorate where polls consistently show terrorism and the Iraq war as voters' crucial concerns; they think Bush is stronger on both. A Sept. 21-23 Time magazine poll found 54 percent of voters nationally trust Bush more to handle the war on terror, while just 36 percent trust Kerry more.

But last week Kerry went full bore at Bush's handling of terrorism and Iraq. He started early in the week with a scathing speech in New York about Bush's "arrogance and outright incompetence" in Iraq and has kept it up, setting the stage for this week's foreign policy debate.

"This president took his eye off the ball. This president took his eye off the real war on terror which is against al-Qaida, against Osama bin Laden, against terrorists in 60 countries," he said in Philadelphia, referring to the war in Iraq.

It's a risky strategy, focusing attention on Bush's strong suit. Kerry's advisers think it's necessary.

"Part of the premise here is if it's the president's strength, people have to see that it's also Kerry's strength," said senior Kerry adviser Mike McCurry, one of several former top Bill Clinton aides who have joined the campaign recently.

"That's the argument we're making, that Kerry is fully capable of being a better commander in chief. We have to challenge that premise that it's (Bush's) strength, and make it our strength too."

Sharpening the attacks also can be problematic. Republican pollster Ed Goeas, who collaborates with Democrat Celinda Lake on the Battleground Poll, sees Kerry "in a box" because negative campaigning can turn people off.

"He has to lead the attack," Goeas said. "But in leading the attack, one has to take on water."

The president's campaign also dismisses Kerry's prospects of gaining ground by attacking Bush's record in Iraq.

"Kerry has recently settled on a new 10th position on Iraq," Bush-Cheney spokesman Reed Dickens said. "Voters need to ask themselves, did this new position come from a deeply held conviction and would he have come up with a new position if he was ahead in the polls. Kerry's new advisers are selling his willingness to say whatever is politically expedient as flexibility."

To a number of Democrats watching Kerry lately, though, the more aggressive approach agrees with him. Kerry still speaks in clause-laden sentences, but the overall message appears sharper and more focused.

He speaks often of choices: between cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans or dramatically reducing the number of Americans without health coverage. Or between a president who suggests Iraq is heading in the right direction or one who acknowledges problems and will shift course.

Bush casts it as a choice between a resolute leader and a flip-flopper. Kerry is hitting at Bush's credibility and argues that a president who stubbornly sticks to wrong-headed policies can't improve conditions, either abroad or at home.

"When your horse is drowning in midstream, it's a good time to shift," Kerry told seniors in West Palm Beach last week.

That campaign event offered shades of Kerry's Iowa comeback. Suffering from a cold, Kerry took to the stage barely able to speak and had to keep guzzling water. As the lively crowd peppered him with questions and advice, Kerry's voice returned and he extended his stay by a half-hour.

Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, a longtime friend who joined Kerry in Pennsylvania last week, said until recently Kerry had been playing it too safe. Kerry's decision to "speak from the gut" about Iraq, he predicted, will prove to be a turning point in the race.

"He and I were alone this morning . . . and John's comment was, "I feel liberated,' " Biden recounted. "There was a sense I think in the campaign up until not too long ago of the inevitability of winning and so not taking chances. . . . Right now I'm seeing the John Kerry I served with. Right now I'm seeing the John Kerry who says what he thinks."

Months of sustained attacks on Kerry's ability to keep America safe have taken a toll. His support among women, a strong bloc for Democrats, has fallen ominously low in several polls and the number of competitive states for him has shrunk. A Quinnipiac poll of Florida last week found that the number of voters with an unfavorable view of Kerry jumped from 31 percent to 41 percent over the past six weeks.

But as grim poll numbers prompted hand-wringing by many Democrats, people who have known Kerry longest are focused on the final stretch.

"This is a guy who has got ability, perseverance, tenacity," said Ron Rosenblith, who has helped lead Kerry's campaigns since 1982. "When the time comes, he digs deeper into some of the attributes he has than any other political figure I have ever seen."

The question is whether that time has come or already passed.

Times staff writer Bill Adair contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or adamsptimes.com.

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