The comparisons aren’t difficult to draw between U.S. Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who may be on his way to becoming the 2012 Republican presidential nominee.
Here are the easy ones: They both held office in Massachusetts. They came from wealthy families, spent time at Harvard and generally had a privileged upbringing.
Then there are the political similarities: Both are considered lacking in interpersonal skills and are awkward campaigners. Both are attacked by rivals as “flip-flopping” on important issues. And both have perpetually camera-ready hair.
Beyond the personal and political similarities between the two men, the dynamics of the 2012 presidential election — at least from a 30,000-foot view — are similar to the 2004 race, as well: A reasonably popular incumbent president whose policies have at times alienated his base and antagonized the opposing party is heading into what likely will be a closely fought race that will be decided by a few electoral votes.
Now for the primary: In 2004, Democrats were desperate to find a Teflon-coated candidate who could easily oust a president they both hated and felt had a significant vulnerability. They flirted with ideological soul mates — Howard Dean, John Edwards — and begged others to enter the race — Hillary Clinton, Al Gore.
In the end, though, Democrats quickly settled on Kerry — he swept nearly all the early states and had the nomination locked up by Super Tuesday.
After all, in addition to the hair, he had a resume Democrats saw as tailor-made for the political atmosphere. He was a war hero who had the experience to be president in trying national security times. He was also a war protester, which appealed to a base deeply unhappy with President George W. Bush’s Iraq war (but in the end provided the attack fodder needed to seal his defeat. More on that later.)
Fast-forward to the ongoing Republican primary.
Members of the GOP are certain they can oust President Barack Obama if they find the right candidate. While Romney is pedaling along with establishment support, resources and organization, voters are still flirting with ideological soul mates — Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul — and they are longing for the could-have-beens — Jeb Bush, Chris Christie.
Romney is positioned to follow Kerry’s path of quickly wrapping up enough delegates to have the nomination by February.
After all, in addition to the hair, he has the resume that Republicans see as a good fit for the political atmosphere. He hasn’t spent a lifetime in political office. He has the business experience they see as key to turning around the economy and has built a reputation as a fix-it man.
So, if he does become the nominee, does he succumb to his weaknesses as Kerry did? Or does he have the strengths and skills needed to ward off what could be a similar playbook?
Kerry’s candidacy ultimately faltered under a barrage of ugly attack ads funded by a third-party group that went after his perceived strength: his record as a war hero.
Romney could be ripe for an attack on his strengths. His experience as a turnaround specialist at Bain Capital also resulted in some business failures and job losses. And third-party groups have already played a bigger role in this presidential election than 2004.
Romney’s supporters say that while it’s fun to draw comparisons, Romney is not Kerry.
Perhaps most significantly, this is Romney’s second bite at the apple. He gained valuable experience during his failed bid for the presidency four years ago that could make him less prone to the first-time stumbles that thwarted Kerry.
It’s unlikely we’ll see footage of Romney windsurfing on Lake Mead.