Boston Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry has a reputation in his hometown as an accomplished closer, a politician who pulls out tight races with strong finishes.
As he returns home today to close a gruelling two-year presidential campaign, the Massachusetts senator is hoping to cement that reputation by pulling out what is expected to be one of the closest races in U.S. history. He winds up his campaign Tuesday evening in Boston, where supporters will watch election returns at an outdoor rally.
At the start of this year, few thought Mr. Kerry would be in a position, on the eve of the election, to be talking about his plans for the presidency.
In the weeks running up to the first Democratic primaries, Mr. Kerry's lacklustre campaign was being steamrollered by former Vermont governor Howard Dean's juggernaut.
Even five weeks ago, Mr. Kerry's campaign was floundering and it was beginning to appear as if the Republican incumbent, President George W. Bush, would open an insurmountable lead.
But Bostonians have seen Mr. Kerry win elections in the past after trailing late in the race notably in the 1996 Senate campaign against popular Republican governor William Weld.
What helped turn the tide this time, first in the Iowa caucuses, then in the crucial New Hampshire primary, was Mr. Kerry's discipline. Democrats rallied around the senator as the candidate mostly like to be able to defeat Mr. Bush this fall.
Political consultant Dan Payne, who has worked on Mr. Kerry's Senate campaigns, said he wasn't surprised the Democratic challenger was able to keep his cool and regain momentum after a disappointing September, following devastating attacks by the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and a successful Republican National Convention.
"He is a tenacious person," Mr. Payne said in an interview yesterday. "He does not get easily discouraged; even when things get tough, John remains resolute. A lot of candidates don't have enough self-confidence to do that."
If Mr. Kerry wins the presidency, historians will no doubt look back on the first debate, in Miami on Sept. 30, as the turning point.
Contrary to the image painted in Republican commercials of a weak, vacillating politician, Mr. Kerry came across in that debate as bright and in command, while Mr. Bush looked lost and defensive.
"The Bush people were probably too successful at portraying Kerry as a flip-flopper," said Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University who has followed Mr. Kerry's career.
"They set up very low expectations, which he easily outmatched." Prof. West said.
Mr. Kerry often takes a while to hone the essential message of a campaign. During the primaries, for example, it was Mr. Dean who was the clear opponent of the Iraq war, but Mr. Kerry moved to that position and then gradually adopted Mr. Dean's characterization of "the wrong war at the wrong time."
Mindful of the difficulties of running against a war-time president in the middle of a conflict, Mr. Kerry was more ambiguous on Iraq until it became clear with the mounting insurrection that Mr. Bush's policy had become a political liability.
If he should win the presidency, Mr. Kerry would face a daunting challenge in leading a bitterly divided country.
After he pummelled the President during the campaign for making a mess in Iraq, losing manufacturing jobs and failing to contain health-care costs, Democratic supporters will expect him to find an exit strategy for Iraq, stem the loss of jobs and fix health care all without raising taxes for the middle class or increasing the deficit.
Yesterday, Mr. Kerry promised to unite the country in order to find answers to those problems and to meet the challenge of keeping Americans safe from terrorism.
"We've had four years of divisive government; four years in which the President has chosen a very ideological partisan path and in which he broke his promise to be a uniter," Mr. Kerry told CBS's The Early Show. "I will unite America. I'm not going to pursue a partisan ideological path. I want to do what [Franklin] Roosevelt did, which is not care if an idea is a Republican idea or a Democratic idea; I just want good ideas that work for America."