The time has come for John Kerry to get his act together. He is famous as a "closer": someone who loses focus and falls behind in his campaigns, only to come on like gangbusters in the final frenzied weeks, forging improbable victory out of what appears to be certain defeat. He did it in 1996, when he beat Massachusetts' popular Republican governor William Weld. He did it again, in spectacular fashion, in the Democratic primaries.

But lately Kerry appears to be back to his old pattern, stuck in neutral. The Bush administration has disastrously trapped itself in the morass of Iraq, but Kerry has gained no advantage. The job market and the economy are improving, but voters remain anxious about their economic security. Now is the time to strike. The Kerry campaign is in the midst of a $25 million ad blitz, saturating swing states with two 60-second spots highlighting Kerry's Vietnam heroism and his commitment to public service. That's fine, but he needs to back up the image-making with some rhetorical oomph. Here's what he should be saying to voters if he wants to break through the clutter and distinguish himself from the failures of the Bush administration:

"I will get us out of Iraq with honor."

It's becoming evident that Iraq is--and I believe this is the technical term--A BIG FUCKING MESS. When generals start leaking news to the Washington Post that we're in danger of losing, you know things are pretty bad. Lay out realistic end goals for Iraq--jettison the Bushies' ridiculous pipe dream that we're going to construct a stable democracy there, quickly and on the (relatively) cheap. Speak honestly. Explain that we can't leave now, but that there is light at the end of the tunnel--if we're willing to change course. Say we may have to split the country up, but the alternative, now being whispered in the corridors of the Pentagon, is to put a bunch of Baathist generals in charge--and that would be truly dishonorable. Set a timetable for our exit: "a year after I become president, or 18 months." The time frame is less important than the assurance that the exit is clearly marked.

"Where the hell is Osama?"

Bush's great advantage is that voters trust him more to run the war on terror. He doesn't deserve their confidence. The Bushies were obsessed with Iraq, and treated Afghanistan as little more than an appetizer in their bid to remake the Middle East in their own image. But the war on terror was supposed to be about al Qaeda, not Saddam. Remind voters of this. Some would say it's risky to focus on the fact that bin Laden is free. What if Bush lucks out and gets him before November? But there's no risk, because if that happens you have no chance anyway. So you might as well hit them in their political gut for failing to get Public Enemy #1.

"I'm not against the rich--hey, I'm a pretty wealthy guy myself--but I'm not going to let people like me have a free ride at the expense of the hard-working middle class."

The upper-crust elitists who write newspaper editorials, self-appointed defenders of property and the social hierarchy, will whine and moan about how you're resorting to populism and class warfare, but you used a message like this in the primaries and voters liked what they were hearing. Fine, you're not a redistributionist Democrat. Fine, you've dropped the line about "Benedict Arnold CEOs," but steal shamelessly from John Edwards' "Two Americas" rap, about a world of privilege for the rich and one of struggle for everyone else. Everyone who's not a newspaper editorialist knew exactly what you meant.

"That's bullshit, and I'm not going to take it."

Next time you're asked by a reporter about a Republican attack, drop in a four-letter word (actually eight, but who's counting) to your angry comeback. I still count your political resuscitation from the moment you dropped the f-bomb in that Rolling Stone interview in early December. It made you sound like you weren't a typical politician; it made you sound like you weren't a Yale-educated Brahmin. It made you sound tough, and voters like that. True, the finger-waggers will wag their fingers. So what? Fuck 'em.