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Posted on Thu, Aug. 14, 2003

Cheesesteak bites Kerry


PREZ HOPEFUL ASKS FOR SWISS CHEESE!



russeld@phillynews.com

THE presidential election is still 15 months away, the nation's attention is on Ben and Jen, and the biggest name in politics is Schwarzenegger.

But we may have just witnessed the unraveling of the Democratic front-runner's campaign for the White House right here in South Philadelphia, at 9th and Wharton.

Let it be recorded: At lunchtime on Aug. 11, 2003, under the familiar awning of Pat's King of Steaks, Sen. John Kerry attempted to eat a cheesesteak.

For presidential candidates, eating a cheesesteak in South Philly is a political rite of passage. Clinton did it, and so did Gore. John McCain gobbled one, with hot peppers.

But this is more than just shaking hands and kissing babies. For a pol, eating a cheesesteak is like running the gauntlet - past the surly counterman, through the variety of toppings, finishing it off without looking lame.

We want to see if you can survive. And if you can't manage a dripping steak, why should we have any confidence that you can handle a slippery character like Osama bin Laden?

Kerry, you may have heard, failed miserably.

He ordered a cheesesteak with Swiss cheese.

Now I suppose in some corners of the world, Swiss is a perfectly acceptable sandwich ingredient. Switzerland, maybe.

But in Philadelphia, ordering Swiss on a cheesesteak is like rooting for Dallas at an Eagles game. It isn't just politically incorrect; it could get you a poke in the nose.

I once witnessed a sandwich-maker reach halfway out a store window, grab a dude by the neck and threaten to kneecap him and his girlfriend just because the guy asked, "With what?"

Onions, you idiot!

Pat's Steak owner Frank Olivieri had the good grace not to throttle Kerry. But he did advise him that, here in Philly, we don't much like Swiss-eating campaign monkeys.

He got Cheez Whiz instead. The damage, though, was already done.

At first, reporters snickered. Then word filtered into the national press that Kerry looked like a doof. Yesterday, the Washington Post compared the debacle to the first President Bush's out-of-touch questions upon encountering a common supermarket scanner.

Dukakis in a tank.

Quayle's "potatoe" misspelling.

Nixon's five o'clock shadow.

And now this: Kerry's cheesesteak mistake.

I blame it on his handlers.

I mean, who was the dope on his advance team who told Kerry to order a cheesesteak hoagie? For cryin' out loud, the guy's a rookie; eating a cheesesteak hoagie, with its layers of lettuce and tomato, is like trying to hit a major league fastball.

Kerry asked the photographers to stop shooting pictures. Right. You see a train wreck coming, the last thing you do is put down your camera.

So the man who would be president of the people was photographed delicately gripping the sandwich with his fingertips like he's some kind of Boston blue blood playing the piccolo. You half expected him to ask for a silk napkin, Jeeves.

If Kerry had any sense, he'd have gone to our Gov. Rendell for some culinary advice. Here's a guy, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who got himself elected mayor of Philadelphia a decade ago almost solely on his ability to stuff a cheesesteak down his trap without ruining a necktie.

We in Philadelphia expect nothing less of our Commander in Chief.


Send e-mail to russeld@phillynews.com

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