Kerry's last hurrah?

On the road with Sen. John Kerry in must-win New Hampshire, as he fires his campaign manager, punches up his stump speech, and slashes harder at Howard Dean. But he's still trailing badly, and time is running out.

Published November 12, 2003 12:39AM (EST)

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, entering what he acknowledges are the "late innings" of a crucial primary struggle here against Howard Dean, made an impassioned pitch for support last week to employees at the headquarters of Liberty Mutual insurance company. He didn't talk for long. "I really want to have a conversation with you," he said. "I want all of you to look into my eyes and into my gut and make a decision if I'm different. I want you to test me."

Kerry hit the Bush administration for having the "one of the dumbest, most inept, most arrogant foreign policies" he's ever seen. Then he slammed Dean. "I haven't been flipping and flopping because I'm running for president," he said, derisively referring to his archrival. He asked for the audience to "judge him on his fights."

And then, in a private conversation with the event organizer, he quietly pleaded for something else: patience. "Yep," he said, nodding grimly. "We've got to get cranking a little bit."

But Kerry doesn't have much more time for patience. Trailing Dean by double digits in New Hampshire with just nine weeks until that crucial primary election, the Massachusetts senator is finally acting with some urgency, shaking up his staff, trimming his garrulous stump style, and launching daily attacks on Dean.

On Sunday Kerry replaced campaign manager Jim Jordan with Massachusetts-based Democratic activist Mary Beth Cahill, who worked for the women's group Emily's List and Sen. Edward Kennedy. The move is believed, in part, to be an effort to move the campaign's center of influence from Washington, where Jordan was based, to Kerry's hometown of Boston. But Jordan played a central role in building the Kerry campaign, and it's not yet clear how the staffers who are loyal to him will react to his replacement.

That move came amid major stylistic adjustments, including a punchier stump speech -- one that borrows from his Senate colleague John McCain (fighting special interests) and former Gov. Dean (standing up!) -- as well as an increasingly direct and personal assault on Dean's record.

While the Kerry campaign has sought to make its adjustments, though, the Dean campaign has been surging, racking up key labor endorsements and compounding an already sizable fundraising advantage by opting to withdraw from public financing in order to avoid spending caps during the primary. In addition, Dean continues to sign up new volunteers and donors at an extraordinary rate.

During that time, Kerry's fundraising has slowed, his polls numbers have lagged and his campaign has generally failed to live to its once lofty expectations. Hence the late retooling of the campaign, which will either be remembered by historians as the beginning of the Kerry campaign's miraculous turnabout, or the death rattle of the most disappointing campaign of the 2004 election.

In an interview between campaign stops on Nov. 7, Kerry described his late-in-the-game improvements. "We're getting close to the playoffs," he said, twisting around in the shotgun seat of his campaign van to face his questioner. "It's the end of the season and you've gotta jack your game up. I know crystal clear what my agenda is, and I'm speaking it hard and fast."

The newer, trimmer version of the Kerry appeal has a more populist theme: combating "special interests," repealing the high end of the Bush tax cut, and delivering affordable healthcare and lower tuition to the middle class. He is less modulated -- gone is the 20-minute explanation of his votes on Iraq. And his criticisms are more direct. But the most noteworthy change is the all-out attack on Dean, from his positions on taxes, healthcare and guns to, yes, his "values."

Kerry's backers say they see a changed candidate, and they're glad. "I think he's finally shifting into campaign mode and out of senatorial mode," said Fred Hochberg, a former Clinton administration official and a key Kerry supporter in New York. "He's a much different campaigner than he was even three months ago." Hochberg thinks the change in leadership will be significant, and that Cahill, along with the New Hampshire campaign chair, former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, would make necessary adjustments. "Adults are managing the campaign now who really know how to manage people ... And I think now with Mary Beth Cahill managing the campaign, it's going to be a much better reflection of who John Kerry really is."

But it was less than two months ago that Kerry shook up his staff the last time, when communications director Chris Lehane left the campaign -- he has since signed on with retired Gen. Wesley Clark -- and backers said that, too, heralded a new John Kerry. It's unclear whether this is the big campaign shakeup Kerry needs. The immediate reaction to the shift wasn't positive: An Associated Press story said that some on Kerry's staff were angered by the way he made the announcement -- on a conference call where he reportedly mispronounced the name of a staff member, talked while he was eating, and downplayed the impact of the change as "a one-day story" -- and that some were threatening to leave.

While Kerry's delivery has clearly improved since the beginning of the campaign -- at a New York fundraiser in March he barely coaxed applause from an audience of his own donors -- he still isn't drawing the sorts of crowds attracted regularly by Dean. He's also attracting little in the way of new donors, who have been discouraged by the faltering position of the campaign.

And even as he's improved his standing in some public polls since Zogby showed him trailing by a stunning 23 points in New Hampshire, the most recent one still shows him training by 14. That's a jump, but it could be too little, too late.

The Dean camp, for its part, is taking a dim view of Kerry's attempted resurgence. "Everything John Kerry is doing reflects one thing only: desperation," says campaign spokesman Steve McMahon. "Everything he has attempted so far hasn't had the impact that he hoped it would have. But instead of looking in the mirror, he's looking to blame other people. That's the first sign of a failing campaign."

In particular, he said, the move to replace Jordan was a disaster. "Jim Jordan can change a lot of things," he said. "The only thing he couldn't do is make John Kerry a candidate that voters want to embrace. The problem here is simple: The dogs just don't like the dog food."

Kerry said he had clarified his message, and his criticisms of Dean in particular, because of the way the field has shaped up. "It's more clear now how the race is dividing up, and who's where, and who the competition is," he said. "Back earlier, it was unclear sort of where you're heading. But its pretty much a clear race here, and I've got to draw the comparisons: what's he going to do to you, what am I going to do."

In recent days, Kerry has dispensed with any pretense of subtlety in making those comparisons. At appearance after appearance over several days of campaigning in New Hampshire, Kerry attempted to paint Dean as a panderer and a flip-flopper who was unprepared for office and who planned to bleed working families with a massive tax hike. Take for example, his appearance at a Manchester police station. He'd gone to watch a shift change and to chat with some officers about their jobs. It was a fairly basic retail campaign event, with fairly benign conversation. ("So you wear the turtleneck when it gets cold?" he asked one officer about his uniform).

But the questions afterward from the few reporters who had shown up were, as they often are these days for John Kerry, about Howard Dean. And whereas several months ago, Kerry might have declined the opportunity to engage this subject -- before he plummeted in the polls in New Hampshire and nationally -- in Manchester he was only too happy to oblige.

Since last week, when Dean responded to a question about his relationship with the NRA from the Des Moines Register by saying, "I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks," Kerry (among others) criticized Dean for the comment, suggesting that it represented his willingness to pander to the gun lobby. Reacting to a subsequent apology from the former Vermont governor, Kerry took his cue: "The governor moves faster in more different directions, tells more stories, than anyone I've met in politics," he said. "This is not a straight talker. This is a guy looking for the new angle every time he can."

And on the announcement that he was polling supporters about the issue of public matching campaign funds, Kerry said: "What he's really trying to do is weasel out of the agreement that he made," he said.

The next day, at a press conference in front of the Merrimack County Court House in Concord about gun safety -- coincidentally, the very issue upon which he had been criticizing Dean for the past two days -- the big shots of the national political press showed up expecting to hear more of the same.

Kerry didn't disappoint them.

"It's time for us to tell it straight to America," he said, as though speaking to Dean. "You've changed your position on Social Security and you go on Tim Russert and you say you're not in favor, never were in favor of a 70-year age for retirement and then a week later you have to retract ... You say you never supported cutting Medicare, but then it's clear you did support Newt Gingrich's position ... You go to the NAFTA signing, you thought it was that important to be there, that you wanted to be there to support NAFTA, and now you say NAFTA's wrong ... You say only three months ago that you think the Confederate flag is a states' rights issue, won't take a position on where it ought to fly, and then three months later you embrace it, and now you say you're against it."

He added that Dean suffered from a "belief system in the making."

Associated Press veteran Ron Fournier -- one of the agenda setters for the national political media -- aggressively questioned Kerry on whether or not it was hypocritical for him to criticize Dean for dropping out of the campaign-finance system, when he clearly planned to follow suit.

Kerry was resolute. "If I go out," he said grimly, pointing toward Fournier, "I'm preparing to take on someone who doesn't have the principles..." The reporters got what they wanted, and so did Kerry: the attacks dominated the next day's news cycle. (The lead story in New Hampshire's Union Leader was simply headlined, "Kerry Blasts Dean.")

If his death struggle with Dean is all that the media wants to talk to him about, Kerry insists that his conversations with voters are quite different. He says he's been talking more at his public appearances about healthcare, education, taxes, the environment, because those are the issues that voters want to talk about. He insists that his focus on anti-corporate-establishment themes is nothing new, but merely a rejiggered version of what he's been saying from the beginning. "I've been talking about this stuff all campaign," he said. "I think I've sharpened it a little bit as to where I'm putting it and how much I'm focusing on it, but it's not a new focus for me." (For the record, according to ABC News Kerry-watcher Ed O'Keefe, it was precisely on Oct. 28, 2003, when Kerry unveiled his new stump speech at a house party in New Hampshire.)

On those subjects, and others, Kerry continues to be harshly critical of the Bush administration, but less uniformly so than some of his opponents.

Asked about the economy, for example, in light of new numbers indicating upturns in productivity and job creation, Kerry said that some good had come of the Bush tax cut, even if he still believed it was in inequitable and largely ineffective. "Bush already has done some things to remedy [the economy]," he said. "There's an enormous amount of stimulus in the economy today -- you can't ignore that reality -- but it's not as effectively distributed as it might have been over a period of time. It's bound to have some effect, but that's not the measurement of whether it was fair or not."

Similarly, his criticism of the situation in Iraq was based on the method in which it was being handled without being predicated on failure of the mission. Asked about the president's chances of succeeding in making Iraq a democracy, Kerry said, "I think he's on a very difficult road. I mean 'can you' is in the less than 50 percent category. It's not a pretty picture ... Whether he does or not he will have risked American lives, put people in greater jeopardy, and spent more money."

Generally, though, he continued to sound the central theme that the Bush administration's policies benefit campaign contributors, powerful interests -- "big oil, big gas, big pharmaceuticals" --and the wealthiest Americans, at the expense of working families. At a press conference by Arlington Lake in Salem, N.H., which has been contaminated by the gasoline additive MTBE, Kerry used the phrase "special interests" no fewer than 10 times.

The message, at least, is clear, and Kerry predicted that if he continued to talk about these things -- the issues that affect voters -- then electoral concerns could take care of themselves.

Outside Harvey's Bakery, an often-visited campaign stop in Dover, Kerry made conversation with some local residents. Robert Forbes, a tattooed World War II veteran in an FDNY sweatshirt, complained about the benefits that people like him were getting from the government, and about how much money was being spent abroad. Kerry sympathized. "A lot of veterans are getting screwed," he said. Suddenly, he held up a long finger in the man's face: "Do you know how much money the top 1 percent of Americans got from the Bush tax cut?" he asked. "Ninety billion dollars. OK? That's our prescription drug plan." Satisfied, Forbes slapped Kerry on the back and pledged to vote for him.

It was the sort of direct, simple exchange that seemed to belie the elitist Beltway insider caricature Kerry has been saddled with so effectively by Dean, among others. "I think that what I'm doing is what I've been doing for 35 years, and Howard Dean just saying something [about his being a Washington insider] doesn't make it so," he said. "I've been fighting those special interests longer than he has even been governor or involved in politics -- and my record speaks for itself and it's going to speak in the course of this campaign."

Given Dean's recent achievements -- enough economic resources to pass up public financing, pending endorsements from two of the most influential unions in the country; invaluable lists of supporters compiled over the Internet who continue to donate, volunteer and organize in huge numbers -- one might wonder if the adjustments haven't come too late.

But Kerry says things are back on track. "My campaign is moving," he said. "We're very close out in Iowa -- we have a terrific ground operation out there -- and I think we're moving here in New Hampshire. We just got up on TV. We're now there, and I feel very good about it. I'm not as far behind as Gore was behind Bradley [at this point in 1999]. We're doing very well."

By Josh Benson

Josh Benson is Salon's national correspondent.

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2004 Elections Howard Dean John F. Kerry