When Mitt Romney declared during his first debate with President Obama that “I like coal,” it caused Senator John F. Kerry to cock his ear because it didn’t quite ring true with his understanding of the Republican presidential nominee’s record.
This past week, when Romney again expressed his affinity for the coal industry during their second debate, Obama pounced.
“When I hear Governor Romney say he’s a big coal guy,” the president said, “keep in mind, when you were governor of Massachusetts, you stood in front of a coal plant and pointed at it and said, ‘This plant kills,’ and took great pride in shutting it down. And now suddenly you’re a big champion of coal.”
Chalk up one victory for Kerry’s role as Romney’s stand-in during the president’s debate preparation sessions. Credit all those hours he’s spent reading Romney’s news clippings, speeches, and interview transcripts with a very public payoff for the candidate he is serving.
Obama and Romney meet for their final time on Monday night, a 90-minute session at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., that is supposed to focus on foreign policy issues.
It will almost certainly be the last face-to-face meeting between the candidates before Election Day, and the finale of their three-debate series could garner the biggest audience yet.
It will also conclude a unique assignment for the senior senator from Massachusetts, one that has earned Kerry the president’s gratitude even if it attracted brickbats for him when Obama bombed during that first meeting in Denver.
“The president had an off night in the first debate, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of a feisty and effective sparring partner,” David Axelrod, the president’s top political strategist, told the Globe last week.
“Kerry has been superb,” Axelrod added. “He’s done his homework and channeled the Romney rhetoric and attacks really well. And he brings to it the experience of someone who has actually been on that stage.”
The latter comment refers to Kerry’s turn as the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, when he lost to President George W. Bush despite polls showing he bested the incumbent Republican during their three debates.
During the first, Kerry famously brushed back Bush’s mention of the 9/11 terrorist attack while trying to justify the country’s invasion of Iraq nearly two years later.
“Saddam Hussein didn’t attack us on 9/11; Osama bin Laden attacked us,” Kerry said in a retort that visibly irritated the president.
But Axelrod’s praise for Kerry could equally apply to the rest of his debating history.
It was much the same case in 1996, for example, when Kerry participated in a series of eight debates during his epic reelection campaign against then-Governor William F. Weld.
Weld chided him during their first meeting for opposing the death penalty, and he suggested the senator tell the mother of a slain police officer — who was sitting in the audience — why the life of his killer was worth more than that of her son.
Kerry, a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War, replied, “I know something about killing. I don’t like killing. And I don’t think a state honors life by turning around and sanctioning killing.”
Kerry was also tested as a debater in 1982, when he beat a crowded primary field to become lieutenant governor, and again two years later when he beat out another group of Democrats to succeed Paul Tsongas as US senator.
And as a third-year student at Boston College Law School, he was on the National Moot Court team that won the New England regional competition. As an undergrad, he, too, was part of the Yale Political Union, an acclaimed debating society.
All that helps explain why Obama tapped Kerry for such an important role, why the criticism of him for the president’s first failing rang hollow with White House advisers, and why they heaped praise on Kerry after Obama rebounded in the second debate — as typified by the coal answer.
Today, the senator is waking up at Camp David for the final day of a three-day cram session with Obama before Monday’s debate.
He never made it to the presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains as president himself, but he did by transforming himself into the adversary Obama must defeat if he is to keep his own visiting privileges during the next four years.Glen Johnson is lead blogger for Political Intelligence, available online at www.boston.com/politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.