- The Washington Times - Friday, September 3, 2004

Facing declining polls and calls by some Democrats for a campaign shake-up, Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry’s top staffers yesterday defended their response to the Swift Boat veterans’ recent attack commercials and said the ads haven’t hurt the campaign.

“Fundamentally, I don’t think they reshaped the race at all,” said Tad Devine, senior adviser to Mr. Kerry’s campaign. “If they did, the president would be 10 points ahead, not in a dead-heat horse race.”

He urged Democrats to trust that the campaign knows what it is doing.

“Democrats had a feeling like this in March, where we were being hammered, really hammered, by the Bush campaign,” he said. “We chose not to respond in kind. And I think that decision, by the progress we made in spring and summer, was justified.”

Mr. Kerry abruptly dispatched Mr. Devine, campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill and several other top advisers, including new adviser Joe Lockhart, to New York to meet with reporters to discuss the shape of the campaign yesterday.

They insisted Mr. Kerry has weathered attacks on his military record in previous campaigns.

“I believe as we get to November, and people see the way this campaign unfolded, they will understand the decision-making, the consequences of it, and the fact that, in the end, George Bush, as every previous opponent of John Kerry who engaged in these attacks, has come to regret it,” Mr. Devine said.

As Republicans leave New York today after a four-day convention, Democrats said speeches by Sen. Zell Miller, Georgia Democrat, and Vice President Dick Cheney on Wednesday night were so negative they erased any gains Republicans had made in voters’ minds.

At the same time, though, Kerry campaign pollster Mark Mellman said Republicans must get an 8 percent bounce in the polls to be considered successful.

Mr. Kerry isn’t allowing Mr. Bush much of a post-convention honeymoon. The Massachusetts senator had scheduled a campaign rally in Ohio, a state viewed by many as the key to November’s election, to begin at midnight, just an hour after Mr. Bush’s speech ended.

“For the past week, they attacked my patriotism and my fitness to serve as commander in chief,” Mr. Kerry said in prepared remarks for the rally.

“Well, here’s my answer. I’m not going to have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and by those who have misled the nation into Iraq.”

He also attacked Vice President Dick Cheney in unusually personal terms.

“We all saw the anger and distortion of the Republican Convention,” he said. “The vice president even called me unfit for office last night. I guess I’ll leave it up to the voters whether five deferments makes someone more qualified to defend this nation than two tours of duty.”

After the rally, Mr. Kerry, running mate Sen. John Edwards and their wives planned to fan out across Ohio and other battleground states in a four-day Labor Day weekend swing.

The campaign also is launching a $50 million ad blitz in battleground states through Election Day.

Campaign and Democratic National Committee officials said this week that they believe the real general campaign begins today, and that Mr. Bush did not help himself with the negative tone of Wednesday night’s speeches.

In particular, they said the speech by Mr. Miller will come back to haunt Republicans the way many observers think Pat Buchanan’s 1992 Republican Convention speech hurt then-President George Bush’s re-election bid.

“I feel bad for many parents that had to have their children walk away from the TV,” said Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe at the Democrats’ daily response press conference.

Ms. Cahill, speaking at the breakfast with reporters, which was hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, said she thinks Mr. Miller’s speech will overshadow even the president’s speech in most voters’ minds.

“I think people remember gasoline, and that’s what they saw last night,” she said.

“As a close runner-up to the daughters,” added Mr. Lockhart, President Clinton’s former press spokesman who joined the Kerry campaign this week.

Mr. Lockhart and the other advisers met with political reporters amid complaints about the Kerry campaign and recent polls showing him dropping by several points in head-to-head matchups with Mr. Bush.

Democratic insiders and strategists have been grumbling for several weeks that Mr. Kerry lost significant ground in August, particularly because he was slow in responding to the charges about his military record from Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group of Vietnam War sailors who argue Mr. Kerry is unfit to be commander in chief.

For the first 10 days, Mr. Kerry ignored the ads and a subsequent book by some of the group’s leaders. His campaign tried to combat the commercials and the book through press releases.

Eventually, Mr. Kerry did respond in person, calling the ads false and saying the veterans were collaborating with the Bush administration.

Mr. Devine said yesterday the campaign saw “immediately” that the ads would hurt, but said the delayed response was on purpose.

“This was our decision: that we would engage it at a serious level when the time was right,” he said.

He said that came only after the New York Times and The Washington Post ran articles that discredited some of the veterans’ charges and found that some of the group’s donors were also donors to Mr. Bush.

Only then could Mr. Kerry personally denounce the ads, Mr. Devine said.

“I think there was a whole series of events which we worked very hard to make sure people understood our side of the story before this was engaged at the candidate level,” Mr. Devine said.

And Mr. Lockhart said Mr. Bush actually has suffered because Democrats have succeeded in tying him to the ads.

“They have become associated with them, whether they are directing them or not,” he said.

Mr. Devine said they believe future Swift Boat ads won’t hurt his candidate either.

“Once you’ve been demonstrated conspicuously to be a group of liars, it’s very difficult to become truth-tellers,” he said.

No major Democrat has come out publicly to call for a major shake-up, but the campaign isn’t winning strong endorsements from some at this point for its handling of the issue.

“My sense is this campaign isn’t much better or much worse than the last four or five presidential elections that came to town,” Philadelphia Mayor John Street said.

Still, Mr. Street said he doesn’t believe the Swift Boat ads matter too much because this election will be won on local voter turnout operations, and voters aren’t paying attention.

“If it was going to be a good strategy, it’s much too early,” Mr. Street said.

Stephen Dinan reported from New York, and Charles Hurt reported from Nantucket, Mass.

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