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John Kerry and the paradox of polish

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Josh Baxter has a question for John Kerry. A small crowd is gathered outside the American Independence Museum here, enjoying the fall sunshine and grilling the Massachusetts senator on everything from veterans' benefits to the Cuba embargo.

For Kerry, these are friendly faces. Not only is he from a neighboring state, but this town is home to Phillips Exeter Academy, which Kerry's stepson attended and where his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, served on the board of trustees. (The crowd chuckles when he jokes about being in enemy territory - his daughter went to rival Andover.)

But Mr. Baxter, a senior at Exeter, puts forth a nagging concern: "We come from totally different backgrounds," the formerly home-schooled Arkansan tells Kerry. "How can I know that you care about me?"

It's a question that has dogged Kerry, a product of exclusive schools and a relatively blue-blooded lineage (his mother was a Forbes), throughout his political career. In many ways, though, it has less to do with his wealth and upbringing than with his somewhat mannered style - and his status as a four-term senator at a time when many Americans view Washington politicians as disingenuous or out of touch.

On this occasion, Kerry doesn't hesitate. Where people come from is irrelevant, he responds, so long as they care about the same things. He cites the Navy "swift boat" he captained in Vietnam, with men from all backgrounds who worked and fought together. He tells Baxter to look at his record (or, as he puts it, "the road traveled"): "I'm asking you to measure me not by what I'm telling you, but what I've fought for for 35 years."

It's a strong answer - and afterwards, Baxter says he's reassured. Still, he has some doubts: "I guess I still have this problem," he says earnestly. "I just want to be able to believe a politician's words."

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