Kerry Won't Go Gently Into Good Night

John Kerry (search) was not able to break the frustrating record of senators failing to get elected president, but that doesn't mean he's going to fade into history or even give up on his dream of higher office.

Aside from the brief respite of Thanksgiving, the Massachusetts senator was quick to return to work after more than a year of grueling campaigning and one of the nastiest presidential races in modern times.

His Democratic colleagues in both the Senate and in the House appear happy to have him back and in a visible role, as they also are thinking about the party's future and how to move this losing political family forward.

"Every time his name was mentioned, there was enthusiastic applause," said newly named Senate Democratic Caucus Secretary Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., referring to Kerry's appearance on Capitol Hill Nov. 16.

"He has a lot to be proud of, and I hope he'll find what I did — that it was great to have the U.S Senate to come back to," said Sen. Joe Lieberman (search), who lost a vice presidential bid when he ran with Al Gore in 2000.

Just two weeks after a disappointing election outcome, Kerry's first day back as one of 100 senators included sharing the spotlight with newly installed Minority Leader Harry Reid (search), R-Nev., and suggesting that he would consider a second attempt at becoming president in 2008.

Kerry's course is sharply different than the one taken by former Vice President Gore, who won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote. Gore moved to the fringes of party politics after a campaign that ended with many Democrats blaming the candidate directly for the loss to then-Gov. George W. Bush. Gore taught a course at Columbia University in New York and has spoken out forcefully though sporadically against Bush's foreign policy.

Gore has been described as embittered after his loss, especially by those who say the election was stolen. But Kerry, who lost the popular vote by about 3.4 million ballots, is definitely not going that route, say close observers.

"I think he is going to be looked on as one of the leaders of the party," said Democratic strategist Tom King, who spent the last year working on races across the country. "He will be able to command attention. I think he's earned that right. Don't forget [the vote] was 51 to 48 percent."

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., agreed.

"I think Sen. Kerry has a lot to offer the caucus and the country — I'm glad he's coming back and taking up his work again," Schiff told "He commanded a huge number of votes in a very divided country — nearly half the country was supportive of his candidacy and I think it will give him standing to be a more effective voice in the Senate."

Kerry has sent signals that he will pursue an active domestic policy agenda, focusing on Medicare (search) and Social Security (search) reform — two staples in his presidential campaign. Even before returning to Washington, Kerry made it clear he wasn't fading away. Issuing a Nov. 10 statement on the resignation of Attorney General John Ashcroft, Kerry called his former Senate colleague "one of the most divisive faces in this administration."

The day after his return to Capitol Hill, Kerry spoke at length on the Senate floor about his concerns over the national debt (search) and runaway spending by Congress. The debt ceiling had been raised to $8 billion by the Senate that day. Kerry opposed the measure.

"The United States is running a borrow-and-spend government," Kerry said. "Congress seems ready to write new rules when it wants to."

He then launched into territory reminiscent of his many campaign speeches. He urged streamlining government, ensuring that tax cuts produce jobs, spending only money that is in hand and ensuring an economic policy "that works to create opportunity and demands responsibility."

Last week, Kerry sent out an e-mail to some 3 million supporters of his campaign, warning against the recent Cabinet shakeup of the Bush administration and the influence of Bush supporters behind the scenes.

"Despite the words of cooperation and moderate-sounding promises, this administration is planning a right-wing assault on the values and ideals we hold most deeply," he wrote.

But will Kerry's bright star guide his party through its troubled times, particularly as the minority party in both chambers on Capitol Hill, or is his mind to continue campaigning for another run in 2008?

Kerry told a Fox News affiliate the day of his Washington return that "it is so premature to be thinking about something that far down the road. What I've said is I'm not opening any doors, I'm not shutting any doors."

Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute (search), the think tank of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (search), said it's way too early to speculate, and Democrats will certainly have varying opinions about whether Kerry is the best man to run in four years.

"John Kerry is a fiercely competitive guy and he doesn't like to lose," Marshall said. "He could well be thinking about it, but right now is not the time to think about that. He understands that and that's why he won't say anything on that score."

Marshall said Kerry will have to decide how and whether he can use the clout he earned on the campaign trail to lead the party, and it will be up to Democrats whether to follow him. One thing going for him is "there isn't a sense this time that our candidate let us down, as there was from certain quarters in 2000," Marshall said.

"We need a nationally prominent spokesman to convey the message and I think he should be the person who does that," he said.

Juan Williams, correspondent for National Public Radio, said Kerry may have trouble with that. He was roundly criticized for "not connecting" to people in the election, and the Democrats don't appear to have a coherent message to sell yet.

"Kerry is not Bill Clinton," Williams said. "I just think he lacks the charisma, that sense of connection to the very vote that won President Bush the election," Williams said. "He plays very badly to the very audience the Democrats need to attract to get back on track."

Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network (search), said Kerry will likely be one of "a series of leaders" who will help shape the ideas and advance the causes of the party in the next four years.

"He won't be alone, but has certainly earned the opportunity to really help develop a voice," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.