(Bloomberg) -- For some voters, seeing John Kerry and Joe Biden campaign together felt like déjà vu.
In 2004, Kerry was the establishment Democrat who struggled in early-state polls but went on to defeat populist rivals for the nomination, propelled by a perception that he was the most “electable” option to face down a Republican incumbent unpopular with the left.
Now Biden, having recently won Kerry’s endorsement, is looking to replicate that feat with a similar message of experience and steady leadership as he faces serious competition from progressive competitors.
But the chummy Washington insiders rallying together on Sunday in New Hampshire also raised the specter of Biden meeting Kerry’s general-election fate, by failing to generate the enough voter excitement against an incumbent whose campaign played hard ball.
“John Kerry was one of those candidates that folks got behind precisely because of the electability argument. And yet,” said Rebecca Katz, a Democratic strategist who worked for John Edwards in the 2004 primary and has praised Biden’s 2020 rival Elizabeth Warren. “John Kerry was a flawed candidate, but much sharper in ’04 than Biden is today.”
At a town hall in Nashua, Kerry reminisced about the 2004 campaign that he narrowly lost, though he insisted that wouldn’t happen to Biden.
“In November of that year, we turned New Hampshire blue again. Carried Michigan, carried Wisconsin, carried Pennsylvania. We came within one state” of winning the general election, he said. “I know that Joe Biden is the person who can beat Donald Trump and bring this country back together.”
But some in the crowd had doubts about Biden’s ability to win a general election.
“That’s one of the reasons I’m leaning against him,” said Sheryl Laquerre, who recalled her work for Barack Obama’s successful 2008 campaign and said she doesn’t see the same enthusiasm for Biden. She’s leaning toward Warren in the New Hampshire primary.
Her husband, Peter, said he’s inclined to support Pete Buttigieg because he wants “more progressive thinking and a fresher point of view.”
Age at Issue
Age may play a factor too. Kerry was around 60 when he ran for the White House, facing a Republican president of a similar age. Biden turned 77 in November and is vying to run against Trump, 73. Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is 37.
Others were confident Biden would win in part, because the country was sick of Trump and eager for a change.
Karen Stefano, who lives in Maryland but attended Biden’s Nashua event, said she’s “absolutely not” worried about Biden losing to Trump. “He has the gravitas to lead the country on day one,” she said. “I don’t think he’s going to come up short like, sadly, John Kerry did.”
A Whisker Short
Terry Shumaker, a lawyer and former U.S. ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago who’s supporting Biden, said the Kerry endorsement was “highly significant” because the former Massachusetts senator is well-regarded in New Hampshire and won its 2004 primary. He added that “John Kerry came within a whisker of winning that election.”
The two heaped praise on each other. They overlapped for 24 years in the U.S. Senate and served together in the Obama administration -- Biden as vice president and Kerry as the second-term secretary of State. “John and I have been simpatico, intellectually and politically, for a long, long time,” Biden told the crowd.
But the comparisons to 2004 have their limits. Bush’s net approval rating during the election year was around 50%, according to Gallup tracking surveys. Trump’s approval has been stuck in the low 40% range throughout his presidency. And many voters believed it was wrong to change administration in the early stages of the Iraq war, which was then only a year old and still popular.
Kerry, speaking to reporters, alluded to one notable difference between them: while he was one of the wealthiest members of Congress, Biden consistently ranked among the least affluent. Biden often discusses his working-class roots, which many supporters see as a political asset in swing states.
“I know what Joe Biden’s relationship is to the people that make a difference in those states,” Kerry said. “And I think that they like him. They trust him. They’ve seen him fight for these issues for a long time. And I think when the race comes down to Joe Biden versus Donald Trump, there’s just a huge monumental difference between the two of them.”
Still, Kerry warned that Republicans are using similar dirty tricks on Biden. In 2004, it was attacks on Kerry’s Vietnam War record; today, it’s accusations of corruption involving Biden’s son Hunter’s past work for a Ukrainian company.
“This is not a new strategy. They did it with me, about my military record. It’s called create doubt,” Kerry said. “And that is precisely what they’re trying to do with Joe Biden,” he added. “That’s absolutely what they’re doing with Ukraine.”
(Michael Bloomberg is also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)
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