BOSTON – John Kerry (search) is still the outsider many Massachusetts Democrats first met in 1972: a young Vietnam veteran turned war protester who tried to win a seat in Congress from a state he barely knew.
In the 32 years that have passed since Kerry lost that bid — and earned the label of "carpetbagger" — he has attended college here, practiced law, prosecuted criminals and won statewide office five times. Yet his physical absence from Massachusetts during nearly 20 years in Washington at times deepened the sense of distance.
"Kerry is from Massachusetts, but not of Massachusetts," said Paul Watanabe, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts. "While he is certainly a servant of the people of Massachusetts, there hasn't been as much of a mutual embrace as there has been with other political figures we have had."
Others say Kerry has paid his dues and earned the party's respect. "Massachusetts voters like Kerry more than enough to elect him every time he has run statewide," said Michael Meehan, his campaign spokesman.
State history is rich with homegrown Democrats who created their political base by befriending neighborhood powerbrokers, winning a local ward job or council seat and then riding that support to higher office.
Born in Denver, Kerry spent just six years of his childhood in Massachusetts before his diplomat father moved the family to Washington and then Berlin. He went to boarding schools and college at Yale in Connecticut, returning to Massachusetts for brief visits before his Navy tour in Vietnam.
Lower office didn't appeal to Kerry after the war. He shopped around for a congressional seat, setting up homes in three Massachusetts districts before settling on one centered on the mill town of Lowell.
The only politicians to attempt a similar feat — and succeed — were the Kennedys. But their family had a political pedigree: Their grandfather, John F. "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, was a congressman, Boston mayor and Democratic power in the early 20th century. Their father, Joseph Kennedy, was a prominent political and corporate figure.
Kerry's family ties to Massachusetts were illustrious but dusty. A direct forebear, John Winthrop, was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A great-great grandfather, Robert Charles Winthrop, served in Congress and the U.S. Senate in the mid-19th century.
Kerry also has never appeared comfortable in the bars, parishes and union halls where local politics often transpires.
"He is not a Ted Kennedy, old-line, relationship Democrat," said Dan Payne, who worked on Kerry's Senate campaigns. "He's not a backslapper. No one's ever accused him of that. It's just not his personality and not his nature. A lot of voters see that as a positive, that he's not one of the old-line hacks."
Lately, Kerry's political ties to Boston haven't been strong enough to avoid friction with Mayor Thomas Menino.
Police seeking a new contract picketed a national mayors' conference to pressure Menino. Kerry refused to cross the picket line and canceled a speech to the group. Kerry aides claim Menino hung up on Kerry as they discussed the labor dispute, but the mayor denied it. He also called the campaign "small-minded and incompetent."
Ten years after his losing congressional bid, Kerry — who by now had a law degree from Boston College, had served as assistant prosecutor for Middlesex County and had a law practice - ran for lieutenant governor. He also had become a husband and father of two daughters, but the outsider label resurfaced.
"After 1972, he went in and did the grunt stuff," said Michael Goldman, a longtime Democratic activist. "He stayed in Lowell. But to the political establishment, he was always the guy who didn't want to pay his dues."
The party faithful handed Kerry a fourth-place finish during the nominating convention. He prevailed in a five-way primary and then in the general election to become Michael Dukakis' lieutenant governor.
Democratic insiders objected two years later when Kerry sought the nomination for the U.S. Senate. He defeated the establishment favorite, Rep. Jim Shannon, and won the general election.
During his first two terms in Washington, Kerry gained little favor with local Democrats, who complained that he only paid attention to them when he wanted them to re-elect him. Many said they didn't even ask Kerry's office for help with local projects or grants, turning to Kennedy instead.
"It's unfair to make the comparison," said Dukakis, a professor at Northeastern University. "Kennedy is a guy who people relate to beyond anyone I've known, including yours truly."
The perception that Kerry paid too little attention to his constituents became an issue in 1996 when Republican Gov. William Weld challenged him. Some Democrats sat out the race or crossed party lines to support the popular governor.
Kerry struggled to keep the seat, earning the grudging respect of his party at home as the national spotlight turned on the race. He defeated Weld by 7 percentage points and offered a mea culpa on election night, promising to spend more time listening to the people of Massachusetts. It marked a turning point in his political career.
"I think it is fair to say I learned more in this campaign about you, about politics and about myself than I have learned in any run I have ever made," Kerry said then.