- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 19, 2004

The burning question in the minds of top Democratic political leaders here: Who is running John Kerry’s campaign?

The more relevant question: Is any one person in charge of the Kerry organization? Veteran Democratic strategist Tony Coelho, who managed Al Gore’s 2000 campaign with an iron fist in its early months, raised this question last week in acbsnews.com interview, when he said Mr. Kerry’s campaign was in disarray, weakened by bickering and turf wars, with no top heavyweight to shape and direct its message.

Stories about the chaotic Kerry campaign, which has had three staff shakeups since the primaries, have circulated for months. But Mr. Coelho is the first to publicly air an insider view. “There is nobody in charge, and you have these two teams that are generally not talking to each other,” the longtime party adviser said. “Here are two groups that have never gotten along and have fought, and it is a lot over money.”

Democratic consultant Bob Shrum is the high-paid senior strategist who ruled the roost until Mr. Kerry brought in Sen. Ted Kennedy’s chief of staff, Mary Beth Cahill, as his campaign manager to bring some order to his bickering staff. Mr. Shrum is described as “a control freak” who speaks only to Mr. Kerry. Miss Cahill has the title of manager but is really an administrator, not a strategic political thinker.

“Our problem here is a national message,” says Mr. Coelho, who maintains close contacts with key Kerry advisers and national party leaders around the country. There isn’t one, he says.

“You need a campaign boss, somebody who says, ‘Shut up, we are going to work this out’ — not someone who can go around to Kerry, and that’s Shrummy’s forte,” he said of Mr. Shrum.

Earlier this month, with his polls in a nosedive following the Republican Convention, Mr. Kerry ordered yet another shakeup, bringing in John Sasso, a longtime adviser who managed Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential campaign until he resigned in the wake of a news leak that drove rival Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware from the race.

Mr. Sasso is now said to be Kerry’s new senior message guru who has the senator’s ear and confidence, though he has not been given any higher title. He brought in several of Bill Clinton’s senior White House advisers, including former press secretaries Joe Lockhart and Mike McCurry.

The result, after three messy public shakeups, is dozens of warriors but no real chief — a disturbing signal Mr. Kerry cannot put together a disciplined, well-run campaign organization. Some may view this as inside baseball, but independent analysts say voters notice and it shapes their view of Mr. Kerry.

“The American people are not asleep,” said political analyst Stephen Hess at the Brookings Institution. “They’ve been following this. … People don’t change their staff when things are going well. What is strange, of course, is that Kerry knew he was going to be the nominee of this party since early March. He knew what was needed and somehow he wasn’t able to do that to his own satisfaction earlier,” Mr. Hess said.

Nominees have changed staffs in midstream before, but few have done so at the beginning of the general election. Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992 had their teams in place early. George W. Bush’s team was chosen two years ago.

“Once you replace your staff, it is because you are dissatisfied with your present staff and you create all sorts of internal problems. New people working with holdovers. Old staffers who fear they will get the ax next. New people who need to be quick studies. There is no longer any time for trial and error,” Mr. Hess said.

Mr. Coelho’s harsh but honest critique of Mr. Kerry’s ever-changing campaign organization has spread through Democratic political circles like wildfire, triggering backroom talk that their party’s nominee doesn’t have a firm grip on his own campaign.

Few Democrats are willing to talk publicly about Mr. Coelho’s brutal take on the Kerry campaign, but party adviser Donna Brazile thinks his remarks were “a cheap shot and a low blow,” especially his push for Mr. Sasso to take over Miss Cahill’s job.

“I think it is sexist because a woman is running it,” she told me, adding that she ran into similar criticism when she took over the Gore campaign after Mr. Coelho resigned due to ill health.

“Mary Beth is very much in charge of that campaign, and she’s going to continue too run that campaign,” Miss Brazile said.

Presidential candidates must pass many tests before voters are willing to put them in charge of the country’s government. One of them is being able to put together a smoothly run, problem-free campaign organization that instills confidence in his ability to be commander in chief.

So far, John Kerry is failing that test.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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