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AT A GARISH REPUBLICAN FUNDRAISER luncheon a couple of weeks after the primaries, U.S. Senate hopeful Jim Rappaport was hard at work.
While the rest of the Republicans' slate of candidates--from an aloof William Weld to an effusive Joseph Malone--were trying to sneak in a few solitary moments with their filet mignon at the head table, Rappaport was out among the well-wishers, pressing the flesh and accepting discreetly-offered envelopes with a grin.
Rappaport--the GOP's 34-year old challenger to one-term Democratic incumbent John F. Kerry--never managed to touch his steak; a tuxedo-clad waiter silently whisked it away while the candidate was working the crowd. Still politicking, Rappaport managed to miss dessert as well.
In fact, he missed the entire $1000-per-plate meal.
Meals, though, aren't all that James Rappaport--"Rappy" to Republican buddies--is missing. He's also woefully short on credibility: Very few political analysts, and certainly not his opponent, are taking the Concord real estate developer seriously as a politician.
Rappaport must be shaking his head in amazement. Until a few weeks ago, his chances to unseat Kerry looked promising. He had steamrolled over his opponent in the GOP primary, Dan Daly, by scooping close to $2 million out of his personal savings. And entering the general race, Rappaport appeared to be in a virtual deadlock with Kerry, according to several polls.
But instead of soaring past his rival, the Republican challenger has fallen nearly out of the race. Thomas Kiley, a Boston political analyst, says that the candidate "is now almost at the point of unelectability.
How did it happen?
IF EVER ANYONE HAD AN ideal chance to campaign against a Congressional incumbent, it was Rappapport. Kerry, like all his peers up for reelection, had to stay in Washington until Congress and the White House agreed on a budget. During that time, he had been unable to campaign face-to-face against his opponent.
For weeks after the primary, Rappaport has had Massachusetts to himself, like a schoolboy at recess while the rest of the class stayed in detention.
And Kerry's absence was telling. At his Boston campaign headquarters, phones rang endlessly and messages were lost or forgotten. While Rappaport splashed full-page ads onto the Boston Globe and payed for high-tech TV advertising, Kerry's campaign machine seemed to be stalled.
With his opponent safely out of town, Rappaport latched onto a strategy strikingly similar to the one John R. Silber had just employed to grab the Democratic nomination for governor. Instead of sparring with Kerry on the battelfield of national issues, he would equate his opponent with "tax and spend" state liberals like Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.
By capitalizing on voter discontent with state management, Rappaport strategists reasoned, they could ride the same tide of voter anger that had just swept away Democratic incumbents across the state, from Attorney General James Shannon to House Speaker George Keverian.
Of course, voter wrath was directed mainly atstate politicians for throttling the stateeconomy, and not at federal legislators likeKerry. But by campaigning as if he were fightingfor a state senate seat, Rappaport hoped tocapitalize on the same voter anger that seemed towork for Silber.
He started early. On the night of the primary,Rappaport called Kerry "Mike Dukakis's ambassadorto Washington."
"Kerry and Dukakis were elected as a team...They think like a team.. They are philosophicalSiamese twins," he said.
Local imagery was everywhere in the Rappaportcampaign. The phrase "It's time to putMassachussetts first," was emblazoned across thetop of his campaign brochure, and he has madesubstantial mention of his support for theCitizens for Limited Taxation and their proposalto roll back Massachusetts taxes to their 1988levels.
Topping it all off was Rappaport's now-infamous"metamorphosis" commercial, in which an especiallyunattractive close-up of Kerry transmogrifies intothe face of the despised Dukakis.
NOT SURPRISINGLY, Rappaport's earlysuccesses caught the eye of top WashingtonRepublicans, eager to rid themselves of thebothersome Kerry.
Kerry, along with fellow decorated Vietnam vetSen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), has been a persistentthorn in the side of two consecutive Republicanadministrations. Because of their strong warrecords, both senators have been able to lambastthe Administration's overseas entanglements andremain immune from the charge that they are "soft"on foreign policy.
The Bush Administration never hid its optimismabout the Massachusetts race. Right after theprimary, White House aide Ron Kaufman told theBoston Herald that polling data showed Kerry to be"the weakest Democrat running for re-election inthe country."
"There is no question [Kerry] is beatable,"said Kaufman. "I'm convinced [Rappaport] can win.
At a campaign stop in Burlington, Massachusettslast Thursday, President Bush himself underscoredhis support of Rappaport.
"You look at that Senate, and you canunderstand why I believe we need him," Bush saidof Rappaport.
GIVEN THE GOP'S HIGH HOPES of oustingKerry, it should come as no surprise thatRappaport's campaign strategies have smacked ofguidance from the national level. But thepolitical neophyte's attempts to emulate thebare-knuckles campaign tactics that catapultedBush to victory in 1988 have simply not played inMassachusetts.
Indignant over Kerry's aggressiveness,Rappaport spokesperson Richard Gaines complainedon the night of the primary that "one of his[Kerry's] minions stood up and called Jim a pitbull." Yet since that time, the Concord businessleader has bared his political teeth on manyoccasions, and his aggressiveness has mostlybackfired on him.
For example, Rappaport has lambasted Kerry forconsorting with a Central American terrorist,although Vice President Dan Quayle and Sen.Richard Lugar later testified that they too hadmet with the man, Guillermo Ungo, and he was noterrorist.
Early in the campaign, Rappaport alsoproclaimed that of the 96 bills Kerry hadsubmitted to the U.S. Senate, none were approved.The charge was later discovered to beunsubstantiated, and Rappaport sustained agrilling on this transgression by WBZ-TV'spolitical reporter Martha Bradlee on a televiseddebate a few weeks ago.
Other attacks have done little to raiseRappaport's credibility. For example, he has triedto peg Kerry with being "soft" on Iraqi PresidentSaddam Hussein for proposing that theinternational community should grant the Arableader some "wiggle room" in negotiating asettlement.
Kerry's statement was surely impolitic at atime when the country was rallying behind thepresident and his "unnegotiable" terms. ButRappaport won no political ground by attacking hisopponent on foreign policy: Kerry, the owner ofthree
Purple Hearts, was commanding a gunboat in theMekong Delta while Rappaport was learning hismultiplication tables.
Rappaport's tactics have earned him the scornof much of the political establishment--bothpartisan and not. What worked wonders againstKerry's ex-boss in the 1988 presidentialrace--just recall the Willie Horton and theAmerican flag television commercials--has failedmiserably in defeating the one-term senator.
"These are techniques that come out of theRepublican national committee," said Hale Championof Harvard's Kennedy School of Government."They're generic--they get used all over thecountry."
ALTHOUGH RAPPAPORT seemed to be shootinghimself in the foot politically every time heattacked Kerry in the past few weeks, theDemocratic senator refused to take Rappaport'sbarrage lying down.
Instead Kerry has fought back: He has pointedto state subsidies Rappaport received on hisVermont farm, payments earmarked for poor farmers.He has raised the subject of Rappaport's refusalto disclose his past five year's income taxreturns.
He has brought up his opponent's shadyfinancial dealings in Hawaii, Vermont andMassachusetts. And he has disclosed that Rappaporthas taken PAC money from the gun lobby (Kerry isone of three senators who refuse to accept PACdonations).
"I think he's paying, somewhat, the price ofthe negative campaign he has run," the KennedySchool's Martin Linksy said of Rappaport.
So as Rappaport heads into the tomorrow'selection, he looks less and less like the goldenboy the Republican administration had hoped hewould be. Despite all the negative campaigns,Kerry appears unassailable.
The Democrat has picked up the endorsement ofalmost every major news organization in the state,putting Rappaport staffers in an uncomfortableposition.
"We don't compile that information," explainedRappaport spokesperson Robert Garrity, when askedfor a list of endorsers. "We feel the election ismore about people than about interest groups," hesaid quickly.
The will of the people, of course, is what anyelection comes down to in the end, and that's whyRappaport has been forced to forsake his filetmignon and press the flesh.
Experts, of course, can be wrong, and everycandidate knows it. But as of today, everyindication shows that the techniques Rappaport haschosen were just not suited to the campaign he wasrunning.
"It's one of the great Reagan things,"explained Champion. "Just kind of a Reader'sDigest view of America."
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