By John Whitesides, Political Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrat John Kerry, criticized as aloof through a two-decade political career, has struggled in the last month to reach out to swing voters and build the sort of personal connection that eluded Al Gore in 2000.
Kerry, the presumptive Democratic challenger to President Bush, rolled to victory in this year's party primaries on the belief that, as a decorated Vietnam War veteran and experienced foreign policy hand, he had the best chance of beating Bush in November.
But so far he has had difficulty turning the anti-Bush passions of party activists into support from swing voters, including the small bloc of undecideds in key states who could decide the election in November.
Hammered by Bush's $50 million barrage of negative television ads painting him as a liberal flip-flopper, Kerry has seen his favorable poll ratings slide since early March. A new Quinnipiac University poll in the battleground state of Pennsylvania on Wednesday found 24 percent viewed him favorably and 31 percent unfavorably.
Focus groups have found him cold, and a ponderous, meandering speaking style on the campaign trail often leaves his crowds flat.
"On the affability scale ... it's almost Al Gore Two," pollster John Zogby said, referring to the 2000 Democratic nominee whose stilted personal style was seen as a liability against Bush.
"That election was Al Gore's to lose and he just never bonded with voters -- that has to be the great shadow that overhangs John Kerry," Zogby said.
But Democrats and some analysts dismissed the concerns, saying the huge issues facing voters this year trump personality politics and Kerry has more than seven months to build bridges.
"With millions of people out of work and terrorists breathing down our neck, I don't think people are looking for a president to hang out and have a beer with," said Doug Hattaway, a Democratic consultant in Boston and an aide to Gore in the 2000 campaign.
"In 2000 we had a virtually issueless election. This year it's a different dynamic," he said.
REFERENDUM ON BUSH
As with most elections involving an incumbent, the voting in November is likely to be a referendum on Bush and his Iraq and economic policies, said Gary Jacobsen of the University of California-San Diego. Kerry simply needs to remain a viable alternative.
"Kerry is every bit the candidate that he needs to be, he's a perfectly good alternative to George Bush," said Democratic consultant Dane Strother.
"These campaigns run in cycles. There was real movement for Kerry around the primaries and there will be again. Around the convention he'll be the hottest thing since aluminum foil."
Kerry spokesman David Wade said the Massachusetts senator was in better shape at this stage of the race than ultimate winner Bill Clinton was in 1992, when he was running third in the polls in April and facing rumors of a brokered convention.
"There's a reason he's drawing record crowds and raising record amounts of money," Wade said.
But even among supporters, Kerry's greatest appeal is still that he is not George W. Bush. Whether that is enough to win a close election is unclear.
"It is anybody but Bush," Diane Cromer, a resident of Lake Worth, Florida, said after attending a recent Kerry town hall meeting.
"I like most of the senator's viewpoints, but it's mostly that we must get rid of this neo-con Bush administration -- it's imperative," she said, referring to the hawks who have pushed the active use of U.S. military in foreign policy.
Kerry, who raked in $54 million in the first three months and launched a lucrative fund-raising tour, acknowledges he still has a lot of work to do with swing voters. He debuted a new series of ads on Wednesday to begin introducing himself.
"A lot of people still don't really know who I am," Kerry told Democrats at a New York fund-raiser. "The level of communication that we still need to undertake here is enormous."