Incumbent fights the tide on politics today


BOSTON -- Sen. John Kerry's campaign is running a television commercial here that shows an image of his Republican challenger, Jim Rappaport, on a balloon that drifts over depictions of various business enterprises in which he has been involved in Hawaii, Vermont and in Boston.

The narrator says: "James Rappaport: He launched his career on his father's real estate empire, built with millions in federal housing dollars." Then the balloon appears over Washington and the narrator says: "Now James Rappaport wants to go even higher, to write our tax laws -- unless we burst his balloon." Then the balloon shrivels as the air leaks out. Phfft.

Running ads attacking a challenger is not orthodox politics. The rule ordinarily is that incumbents don't take the chance of building up lesser-known opponents.

But this is not an ordinary year in American politics and most especially not in the home state of Michael Dukakis. Democrat Kerry is taking Jim Rappaport, the 34-year-old son of a real estate magnate, Jerome Rappaport, very seriously, indeed. He understands that, if he does not force voters to focus on the alternative, the campaign will be no more than a referendum on a liberal incumbent in a year in which the natives are extremely restless.

In any other year, Kerry might be considered only marginally vulnerable. He had been elected to the Senate in 1984 after coming to prominence years earlier as a war hero who later organized Vietnam Veterans Against the War. But Republican polling more than a year ago told them that he had not used his six years in the Senate or the two previous years as lieutenant governor to stamp a strong impression on the minds of voters here. For many voters he became most identified with his role on the Foreign Relations Committee as a critic of administration policy in Central America and Panama.

This is the principal weapon in Rappaport's arsenal. He has been surprised, he says, "at the depth of the people's frustration with John Kerry's lack of involvement in the state." Kerry, he says, has been "more concerned about Central America than central Massachusetts." And, because of those two years as lieutenant governor, Rappaport has been tying him to Dukakis and the angry reaction here against the state's fiscal problems and economic troubles. One TV spot showed an unflattering picture of Dukakis gradually changing into an equally unflattering image of Kerry.

Kerry recognizes the problems that can flow from being too identified with foreign policy issues -- perceptions that have sent some other members of the Foreign Relations Committee, such as Dick Clark of Iowa and the late Frank Church of Idaho, into early retirement. "I've been doing the other things," he says, "but what penetrates are the sexier, bigger issues. . . . The press is more interested in what you think of Mikhail Gorbachev than how many export licenses did you get for Digital [Equipment Co.]."

But Kerry also understands that he must do more than spread out his own record, that he must force voters to focus on Rappaport and decide if he is a suitable alternative. "Nobody knows him," he says. "Given the mood, if they just think it's a question of change, there's a danger there." Rappaport's support in opinion polls, Kerry notes, is higher than his favorability rating, suggesting that the backing for the Republican is based more on the fact he is not the liberal Democratic incumbent than on a positive assessment of the challenger.

So John Kerry is going about the business of filling in the blanks on Rappaport, whom he describes as "a kid who sold a couple of hotels." And Rappaport is trying to persuade voters he has the weight to serve in the Senate. The other day, for example, he held a bizarrely contentious press conference in which he refused to discuss anything but his views on policy questions -- at one point taking a question from his own campaign manager, Jack Quinlan, on his views on President Bush's policy in the Persian Gulf.

Kerry is at least a nominal favorite to survive the anti-incumbent tide here. Rappaport has lent his own campaign $2.25 million already, enough to make him an equal presence in the contest of commercials. But John Kerry is not one of the overconfident incumbents who thinks he has a sure ticket for another six years. And that is why he is willing to play unorthodox politics to try to let the air out of Jim Rappaport's balloon before Nov. 6.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.

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