KERRY: LOOKING TO CLINTON FOR A HELPING HAND

As John Kerry toyed last month with the idea of delaying his official nomination, one voice broke though the babble of advisers and aides: Bill Clinton's. The former president told Kerry not to wait until after the Democrats' convention in Boston--a ploy that was supposed to help the senator spend and raise unlimited cash through August. (According to one former Clinton aide, the ex-prez thought the delay would be "a distraction.") Clinton's intervention was typical of the advice offered in the regular late-night phone calls between the ex-president and the presidential candidate. Clinton's friends and Kerry's aides tell NEWSWEEK that the former president hopes to tune up the message of a senator who lacks Clinton's political perfect pitch.

While Clinton focuses on Kerry's message, the candidate himself is engrossed in the final shortlist of veep picks. Kerry sources say the choice is narrowing to Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt, and that the candidate remains personally uncomfortable with Sen. John Edwards. Some say Kerry could still choose a wild card like Bill Cohen, the GOP senator who became Clinton's Defense secretary.

Brushing off fears among Dems that Clinton might overshadow Kerry, the campaign has embraced the ex-president's book tour. "He'll mention John Kerry's name at every stop, like he's been doing," said one Kerry aide. "It's basically cost-free campaigning for us." Beyond the book tour, campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill envisages Clinton's raising funds and rallying the base. Kerry himself makes ample use of the former president's name, advisers and record. At a Detroit union hall last week, Kerry won his loudest applause when he invoked the Clinton economy. His team of economic advisers is led by Roger Altman (formerly deputy Treasury secretary) and Gene Sperling (Clinton's longtime White House economist). The same goes for his foreign-policy team, dominated by Sandy Berger (Clinton's national-security adviser) and Richard Holbrooke (his U.N. ambassador).

It's a far cry from the pyschodrama of four years ago, when Al Gore wrestled with Clinton's presence and was lampooned by George W. Bush for calling on Clinton's help in the final days of the election. "John Kerry wasn't Bill Clinton's vice-anything," says Ron Klain, Gore's former chief of staff. "He doesn't have to prove how he got here." Kerry may also be helped by some nostalgia for the Clinton era--at least according to Hillary. "People are more and more remembering the positive aspects of the 1990s," she told NEWSWEEK. "It can only benefit John Kerry, who is talking about the issues that elected my husband president." Kerry hasn't forgotten what he last week described as Clinton's "terrible mistake." He just prefers to talk about the mistakes of the president he's running against.

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