St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Sunday, February 1, 2004


BY VIRTUE OF HIS LONG EXPERIENCE, knowledge of world affairs, steadfastness in public life and a life story of national service and personal valor, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts is the best prepared Democratic candidate for president.

Other candidates in Tuesday's Missouri Democratic primary are not without significant strengths. North Carolina Sen. John Edwards offers a charismatic eloquence. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean led opposition to the war in Iraq. Dr. Dean and retired Gen. Wesley Clark of Arkansas have experience running large bureaucracies. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut has the guts to stand up for unpopular free-trade policies. Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich has been out in front on a single-payer health plan. The Rev. Al Sharpton of New York has a passion and sense of humor other candidates haven't shown.

But a presidential candidate must demonstrate what he has learned from all of life's experiences, not just those on the campaign trail. For Mr. Kerry, Vietnam remains a formative experience, and one that still guides his values. He won a Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts as captain of a "swift boat" carrying troops up the Mekong River. But when his two tours ended, he came home to oppose the war, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971:

"How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

This combination of toughness, grounded in hard-earned judgment, gives him a nuanced idea of when to use force in a complicated world. He has demonstrated both toughness and judgment in three decades of public service.

After serving as a prosecutor and lieutenant governor in Massachusetts, Mr. Kerry distinguished himself in the Senate as a leading expert on foreign affairs. He was active in the Senate investigations of Iran-Contra, the CIA connection to Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and the corruption of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. In 1997, long before the nation was paying attention to terrorism, he wrote a book calling for laws regulating electronic money transfers and the use of the CIA to penetrate international criminal organizations.

On domestic issues, he has the strongest environmental record of the candidates, having led the debate on global warming, the ban on oil drilling in the Arctic and the effort to raise automobile fuel efficiency standards. Mr. Kerry also was an early advocate of the federal program to expand health coverage of poor children.

Mr. Edwards is an undeniably appealing candidate, with an ability to connect with people and a coherent vision none of the other candidates can match. His "Two Americas" stump speech is an inspirational populist statement that avoids the language of class warfare. His optimism is refreshing amid the largely negative, Bush-bashing rhetoric of his rivals. It offers hope to Americans ground down by insecurities about terrorist threats, jobs and the cost of health care. As a Southerner, he might have a chance of cutting into the solid Republican South.

But Mr. Edwards has been a senator for only five years, and it shows. He is not as conversant with international problems and world leaders as Mr. Kerry. Such familiarity is crucial when a president must make dec isions based on conflicting advice.

Just as Mr. Edwards' lack of experience is a concern, so are Dr. Dean's temperament and Gen. Clark's political naivete. Mr. Kucinich, Mr. Sharpton and Mr. Lieberman haven't shown the horsepower to win the Democratic nomination.

Mr. Kerry is highly regarded by his Senate colleagues, as evidenced by endorsements, including that of Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C. No senator has endorsed Mr. Edwards. Mr. Kerry has shown an ability to work across the aisle, an essential skill for a Democratic president facing a Republican-controlled Congress.

Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards have similar views on most policy issues. But Mr. Edwards said he would not oppose a concealed-weapons law such as Missouri's; Mr. Kerry would. Mr. Kerry was one of 14 senators who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, while Mr. Edwards showed in a recent debate that he didn't know about the law, which denies federal benefits for gay unions.

Can Mr. Kerry avoid being perceived as another detached Washington insider? His Boston Brahmin background, Yale education and stiff personal style suggest a certain aloofness. But in recent weeks Mr. Kerry has managed to relax a bit and seems to be listening to, rather than talking at, voters. He hopes to avoid being stereotyped as another old-style East Coast liberal -- or tarred by the Bush camp as less than patriotic -- by emphasizing his war record, his strong national security credentials and his long years advocating for veterans.

Missouri Democrats, who Tuesday will find themselves voting in an important primary for the first time, should cast their votes for John Kerry.

Read candidate profiles and stories about where they stand on major issues online at:

Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, copyright © 2004.

Robin Weisenborn, Executive Assistant/Editorial Page "The editorial writers interviewed Kerry and Edwards in a telephone conference call and reached a decision based on the interviews and the newspaper's values."