The overanalyzed acceptance speeches are finished and the tightly scripted, carefully choreographed national conventions are history. Now all that’s left is the campaigning, right? Not exactly.
President Bush left New York City for a whirlwind round of Labor Day weekend campaigning in the battleground states, while Sen. John Kerry reorganized his campaign staff for the third time this election. The Massachusetts liberal, who was beaten down at the Republican Convention, has called in several old Democratic Clinton hands to sharpen his campaign message (or maybe find one) and presumably stoke a fire under a candidacy that seems to be cooling down.
He brought in veteran party spokesman Joe Lockhart, the Clinton White House press secretary, with marching orders to toughen and simplify Mr. Kerry’s message. Throughout August, as Mr. Kerry’s polls faltered, Democrats complained his murky message was all nuance and overintellectualized, due to the Kerry habit of micromanaging and second-guessing everything. Joel Johnson, also a veteran Clinton hand, joined Mr. Lockhart.
But the latest staff changes didn’t stop the outside carping, say Kerry campaign insiders. Clinton attack man James Carville wants Mr. Kerry to bring in Paul Begala, another key figure who helped run the fabled Clinton war room in the 1992 election, to help develop a more effective message to counter last week’s aggressive Republican attacks.
Others want Mr. Lockhart’s authority broadened in an operation now rigidly controlled by Kerry campaign guru Bob Shrum, a top strategist in Al Gore’s campaign. It hasn’t received much attention, but the Kerry campaign has been hampered by Mr. Shrum’s turf-conscious insistence on controlling almost every aspect of the operation. This, say critics, has prevented Mr. Kerry’s operation from quickly responding to political attacks.
Others say the campaign has been driven more by polls and focus groups than a well-thought-out, overarching strategy.
Adjusting a campaign organization is pretty normal in any national election, perhaps in the midst of the primaries or even before them, as Mr. Kerry did twice before. But last-minute organizational changes just before the general election sends a disturbing signal to rank-and-file Democrats and the electorate: Mr. Kerry has not put together a smooth campaign operation.
As one a Democratic adviser asked me, “If he’s having trouble putting a campaign organization together, what is he going to do if he has to form a new government?”
There are many problems in the Kerry organization. Democrats close to the campaign say Mr. Kerry’s overall message is not only unclear but often nonexistent. It fails to quickly respond to attacks from the Bush campaign and from other anti-Kerry political groups, like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Another complaint: Mr. Bush, who has the bully pulpit, knows how to makes news. Mr. Kerry rarely does, repeating the same campaign mantra that suggests he has nothing new to say.
Other Democrats say Mr. Kerry got where he is by attacking Mr. Bush on everything, but that won’t be enough to get him through the general election. “He needs some substance in his speeches and new initiatives to give his candidacy gravitas and a broader appeal,” said one Democratic adviser.
Worst of all, Mr. Kerry’s campaign has been on the defensive for weeks, distracted and consumed by persistent attacks from the Swift boat veterans claiming he lied about his combat action in Vietnam and smeared Vietnam veterans with his blanket accusations that they had committed war crimes against civilians. Mr. Kerry’s belated, defensive responses all but drowned out any campaign message he had and threw his candidacy off-track throughout the past month.
But it will take more than rearranging the staff chairs on the Kerry campaign deck to keep his candidacy from sinking. He not only has slipped in the national match-up polls, but also in key battleground states like Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida.
As Republicans left Manhattan last Friday more unified and energized than ever, Mr. Kerry’s campaign remains somewhat in disarray. He was roughed up by political heavyweights — Rudolph Giuliani, Zell Miller and Vice President Dick Cheney — at the Republican Convention. But a bigger problem seems to be his inability to mount a disciplined campaign.
Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.