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In practice debates, Kerry will play Romney

Obama to prep against one of the few people alive to have been in a real presidential contest

Senator John Kerry has followed Mitt Romney for years.AP/File

Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry, who ran for president himself and is an experienced debater from his campaigns and five terms in the US Senate, will play the role of Republican Mitt Romney in President Obama’s upcoming debate preparation.

In that capacity, the senator will be expected to provide the answers Romney might offer on debate questions, while foreshadowing his attacks, mimicking his speaking style, and modeling his posture so Obama feels comfortable against him during their three meetings this fall.

“There is no one that has more experience or understanding of the presidential debate process than John Kerry,” Obama’s senior campaign strategist, David Axelrod, said Monday in a statement to the Globe. “He’s an expert debater who has a fundamental mastery of a wide range of issues, including Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts. He’s the obvious choice.”


Obama’s performance in his debates against Romney could be pivotal to the election’s outcome.

Romney has yet to select a surrogate to play Obama during his mock debates. One of his prospective vice presidential running mates, Ohio Senator Rob Portman, did so in 2008 for Republican nominee John McCain. Portman also played Kerry for President George W. Bush as he prepared to debate the senator during the 2004 White House campaign.

Kerry brings unique stature to the assignment, as one of the few living people to have previously participated in a presidential ­debate.

He has also observed the presumptive GOP presidential nominee over a span of 18 years, first as ­Romney ran for the US Senate in 1994 against his former colleague, the late Democrat ­Edward M. Kennedy, and then through Romney’s single term as governor of Massachusetts and his first run for president in 2008.

The Obama campaign has not only attacked Romney’s private-­sector tenure as head of Boston-based Bain Capital, but his stewardship of Massachusetts and his economic record while governor of the state from 2003 to 2007.


Meanwhile, Kerry was widely viewed as besting Bush in each of their three debates during the 2004 campaign, pulling the race into a dead heat before Bush won the general election.

The atmospherics then were similar to now: a sitting wartime president with a flagging economy, prompting analysts to predict a close election.

Critics also describe Kerry and Romney as similar not just in terms of physical stature, but in their aloofness. Both have ­also been belittled for flip-­flopping on major issues.

And Kerry and Romney are close in another respect: ­Romney has a net worth estimated at up to $250 million, while the Capitol Hill news­paper Roll Call pegged Kerry’s at $193 million last year.

Besides his presidential campaign, Kerry ran unsuccessfully for the US House ­before running successfully for lieutenant governor in 1982 and the US Senate in 1984. He participated in an epic series of eight televised debates during his 1996 Senate reelection campaign against William F. Weld, a popular Republican moderate who was then governor.

In one debate, Weld challenged Kerry to defend his ­opposition to the death penalty for the mother of a slain police officer.

“I know something about killing,’’ said Kerry, a veteran of the Vietnam War. “I don’t like killing. I don’t think a state honors life by turning around and sanctioning killing.’’

In the aftermath of those sessions, Weld said of Kerry in 2004: “He is totally comfortable and at home in a debate format, because he has been doing it all his adult life — and most of his teenage years, as well.”


No formal preparation sessions have been set, but Obama and Romney are slated to debate three times: Oct. 3, at the University of Denver; Oct. 15, at Hofstra University on Long Island; and Oct. 22, at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. Each match-up will be sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonpartisan group that has organized all presidential candidate meetings since 1988.

A Kerry spokesmen had no comment Monday on the assign­ment.

The role being assigned to Kerry underscores the deepening connection between him and the president.

Kerry helped fuel Obama’s rise to national prominence, naming the then-US Senate candidate from Illinois to serve as keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the party gathering in ­Boston that formally nominated Kerry to run against Bush.

During the past four years, Kerry, the chairman of the ­Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has emerged as an unofficial administration emissary to foreign policy hot spots in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa.

That, in turn, has fueled speculation that Obama will nominate Kerry to serve as secretary of state in January, assum­ing the president wins reelection and the country’s ­incumbent chief diplomat, ­Hillary Rodham Clinton, follows through on plans to leave the administration after one term.

The president is scheduled to visit Boston Monday for a ­series of campaign fund-raisers.

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.