WASHINGTON – If a man can be known by the possession he holds most dear, then know John Kerry (search) as a man forever grounded in the Vietnam War.
Know Wesley Clark (search) for his use of up-to-date technology to stay in touch with people outside the political bubble. And know John Edwards (search) for the sadness behind his most treasured keepsake, his late son's Outward Bound pin.
Candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination showed a little of their personal side when answering a series of questions from The Associated Press over the last month. The revelations came as voters started tuning in to the campaign and included a few surprises, too — Clark's taste for the '80s rock group Journey, for example.
True to his reputation as a quick-witted and disheveled man whose mind can race faster than the rest of him can keep up, Howard Dean disclosed that, like many other medical doctors, he's a messy writer — penmanship being his worst subject in school. Asked the task at home that most needs tending, he said cleaning up the garage.
Kerry saw combat in Vietnam as a Navy gunboat captain sailing up rivers ringed with danger, came home a decorated veteran and joined the anti-war movement. He named his "lucky charms" as his most prized possession — his wedding ring, his dog tags and his camouflaged "lucky hat" from Vietnam — as well as a Bible given to him by fellow Vietnam veteran Max Cleland.
Cleland, who served with Kerry in the Senate, lost both legs and an arm reaching for a loose grenade that exploded.
Clark most prizes his Blackberry wireless communicator. "It keeps me in touch with people from the world outside of politics," he said.
Speaking of that world, he named an old Arkansas friend, Rollie Rimmel, when asked to name his favorite living Republican. Other Democrats chose figures familiar to Washington — Republican Sen. John McCain being a leading choice.
Clark makes frequent use of digital correspondence. Bill Taylor, his debate coach at West Point and an analyst at a foreign-policy think-tank, recalls trading early morning e-mails with the retired general at the dawn of his campaign, when he had little or no staff.
They'd swap thoughts about the coming fight, about the news of the day and about whatever insults conservative talk-show hosts were throwing at him on radio. "He doesn't write long e-mails," Taylor said.
Edwards' greatest possession is his son Wade's Outward Bound pin, earned at a Colorado mountaineering school in the year before his 1996 death in a highway accident at age 16. Edwards always wears the pin on his lapel.
And when asked about his most pressing home task, Edwards, 50, said looking after his young children, Jack, 3, and Emma Claire, 5. His favorite thing to do on a lazy day is watch "Scooby-Doo" with them.
The personal side of some candidates is nourished with lots of fresh air, or as much as they can manage these days.
A hockey player of note in his youth, Kerry, 60, still laces up the skates and recently took up kite-surfing, adding to his list of water sports and another favorite recreation, hunting. Clark, 59, is a skier.
Dean, 55, learned to snowboard 10 years ago for a race, and his mother, Andree, remembers him sailing a small sunfish sailboat alone on the Atlantic. "He's fearless," she says of those voyages.
Sentimentality runs through Joe Lieberman's answers. His favorite lazy-day activity is taking a walk with his wife, Hassadah. His most pressing home task: "Bringing home flowers; making the morning coffee."
A baseball signed by Yankees slugger Joe DiMaggio and a prayer book from his father are the objects dearest to Lieberman, 61.
The Democrats have eclectic tastes in music — Al Sharpton favoring gospel singer Yolanda Adams; Edwards, rock star Bruce Springsteen; Dean, the hip-hop singer Wyclef Jean; and Lieberman, the classical Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.
But when it comes to books, they tend to bone up on leadership, history and policy. Dennis Kucinich last read Gore Vidal's "Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson." Edwards read Jay Winik's "April 1865: The Month That Saved America," and Dean read "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America," Barbara Ehrenreich's account of working a series of low-wage jobs.
Kerry read "Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West," by Stephen Ambrose, and liked it so much he read it again.
It's a safe bet he never read it over a slice of rhubarb pie. That's one food he says he won't eat.