Saturday, September 20, 2003

The presidential campaign of Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry, the Boston Brahmin who once fancied himself as the heir apparent to JFK’s political legacy, had a mixed week. Winning the endorsement of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the most popular politician in California, was good news for the foundering campaign. Part of the bad news was the entry of retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, who now doubles the number of wounded Vietnam War heroes in the Democratic field, effectively eliminating Mr. Kerry’s monopoly of the one area that he has heretofore exploited.

In what may signal the beginning of a campaign implosion, Chris Lehane, who served as Mr. Kerry’s communications director, resigned last week. Mr. Lehane, who directed the Clinton White House’s pit-bull communications operations during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and served as press secretary for Al Gore’s ill-fated 2000 presidential campaign, reportedly urged Mr. Kerry to more aggressively counterattack Howard Dean’s campaign for the Democratic nomination. A Zogby poll in New Hampshire illustrates Mr. Kerry’s problem. By late August, Mr. Kerry’s 13-point February advantage (26-13) over Mr. Dean had turned into a 21-point deficit (38-17). Unless corrective action is taken soon, Mrs. Feinstein’s endorsement may prove to be meaningless.

Meanwhile, money has been flowing into the campaign coffers of Mr. Dean, who raised $7.6 million in the second quarter, compared to Mr. Kerry’s $5.8 million. (The Dean campaign fully expects to reach its goal of $10.3 million for the third quarter. In fact, unless it shatters it, it will fail to meet the expectations it has set.) Imitating New Hampshire poll data, second-quarter fund-raising figures represented a massive reversal of fortune for Mr. Kerry, who, during the first quarter, raised more than $7.5 million while Mr. Dean pocketed less than $3 million.

Speaking of fortune, the political strategists are busy devising scenarios about how an increasingly desperate Mr. Kerry could get his hands on his wife’s $550 million Heinz-ketchup inheritance. According to the consensus interpretation of campaign-finance law, Teresa Heinz Kerry is limited to contributing $2,000 to her husband’s campaign. If he had to draw upon his own resources, Mr. Kerry told The Washington Post in March that he could “put a certain amount into [the campaign], but when you talk about self-funding, could I do an entire campaign? The answer is ‘profoundly no.’ ” In June, the Kerry campaign told the Associated Press that it had concluded that the Massachusetts senator could not legally use any of his wife’s fortune for his presidential race. Today, there is speculation that Mrs. Kerry may try to transfer Heinz trust assets into a joint account, half of which he could divert to his campaign. Such an action would certainly be challenged in court by his competitors. Another possible loophole would be an “independent expenditure” campaign waged by his wife, who in the past has indicated she would open her coffers if she felt she and the senator had come under personal attack.

With donations gushing in, the Dean campaign has been considering forgoing matching funds during the primaries, a strategic decision that would allow it to spend far more than the $44.6 million limit that comes with matching funds. Amid the possibility that Mr. Kerry’s third-quarter fund-raising might be about half of the Dean campaign’s take, Mr. Kerry last week unloaded in an interview with the Boston Globe, which described his demeanor as bristly. “If Howard Dean decides to live outside [the federal spending cap], I’m not going to wait an instant,” Mr. Kerry told the Globe. “Decision’s made. I’ll go outside. Absolutely. I’m not going to disarm.”

Asked if he would use personal funds, Mr. Kerry replied, “Whatever’s legal under the law.” If his foundering campaign tries to take the loophole route, the self-styled campaign-reform advocate will surely find himself in court. Unlike his political hero — JFK, whose 1960 campaign was financed by his father’s bootlegging fortune — at least Mr. Kerry can take solace in the fact that ketchup is less unseemly. On second thought, there is something delicious about a Boston Brahmin desperately clinging to his wife’s ketchup dough to bankroll his political dreams.

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