Sunday, May 23, 2004

Behind the scenes of President Bush’s re-election campaign lurks Karl Rove. Bill Clinton had James Carville, and Ronald Reagan had Lee Atwater. But who is John Kerry’s political genius?

The easy answer is that he doesn’t have one. Rather, the Democratic presidential candidate relies upon a cadre of top advisers, many of whom are veteran staffers of Mr. Kerry’s senior colleague from Massachusetts, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

“They can point to no master political manipulator in the Kerry campaign,” said Arnie Arnesen, host of a New Hampshire political radio show. “It’s like a table at the United Nations.”

There’s political strategists Bob Shrum and Tad Devine, campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill and spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter, all former Kennedy staffers and advisers.

Mr. Shrum and Mr. Devine — of the political media consulting firm Shrum, Devine and Donilon — are legendary in Democratic circles for putting a populist stamp on candidates from Mr. Kennedy to former Vice President Al Gore.

Ms. Cahill and Ms. Cutter joined the Kerry campaign last year at a point when many Democrats had written Mr. Kerry off as hopeless and many in the party, including Mr. Kennedy, feared that nominating fiery former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean would lead to certain defeat in November.

Asked to name the guru of Kerry’s campaign, Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report said: “Shrum.”

Mr. Shrum’s pre-eminence in the Kerry campaign was made clearest last fall as the faltering Mr. Kerry put the finishing touches on his formal campaign announcement speech in Charleston, S.C.

The speech had been written by Jim Jordan, his then-campaign manager and longtime political aide. But at the last minute, Mr. Shrum intervened and slipped Mr. Kerry a new speech written by him.

In the end, it was the Shrum speech that Mr. Kerry gave — against the backdrop of the USS Yorktown.

“That was the beginning of the end of Jordan,” Ms. Duffy said.

But Mr. Shrum isn’t quite the “genius” behind the candidate in the manner of successful gurus Mr. Rove and Mr. Carville, each widely reviled in the other party.

Asked about the lack of invective for Mr. Shrum, one political observer noted: “Hello? He doesn’t win elections. Can someone say ‘Al Gore’?”

Ms. Arnesen said, “The counterpart to Karl Rove in the Democratic Party is Bill Clinton.”

But, she added, Mr. Clinton doesn’t conjure up the images associated with Mr. Rove of the Wizard of Oz behind the scenes, seated at a console of political levers and buttons.

“The problem is Bill Clinton is both feared by Democrats and loved by Democrats,” Ms. Arnesen said.

The table of political mini-masters around Mr. Kerry is, after all, the Democratic way, she said.

“For Democrats, it’s always been a group grope,” Ms. Arnesen said. “For Republicans, it’s always top-down. They put all their eggs in one mind basket.”

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