Trail Mix: Campaign Under Fire

John Kerry and John Edwards popped up in the middle of the crowd like the stars of a J. Crew catalog. Matching blue blazers, chinos and blue shirts (no tie! too formal!). The crowd had just watched Kerry's movie bio on a giant TV screen--the same one that premiered at his convention in Boston. Then, all of a sudden, there the candidates were, on a catwalk to the side of the cameras, striding toward the main stage with big grins and even bigger waves. It looked and felt like more than the usual stump speech. The crowd had gathered at nearly midnight, in the normally slumbering town of Springfield, Ohio. The appearance was being billed as Kerry's aggressive response to George W. Bush's convention address--wrapped up in New York just minutes earlier.

In the end, though, it was just another stump speech--with a couple of zingers thrown in at the top. The zingers weren't that bad. But then, most of Kerry's performance isn't that bad. It's just inconsistent. In the speech, the Democratic challenger questioned the president and the vice president for failing to serve in Vietnam. As a response to a monthlong barrage about his own Vietnam record, it just about worked. But what came next was the same old Kerry: a meandering, self-satisfied ramble through his stump speech. In other words, a mishmash of critique and rhetoric that amounts to something for everyone. "I was happy to see him hitting back," said one member of Kerry's inner circle. "But it wasn't particularly clean and it wasn't particularly piercing."

After his dip in the polls, and the reshuffle inside his own campaign, how bad have things gotten for John Kerry? The simple answer is: not bad enough. "At some point in the coming month, the light will go on and there will be a clarity to his message and a strength of his conviction that will just make people sit up and listen," the Kerry confidante said. The light right now is less blazing than flickering. In Racine, W.V., on Monday, Kerry blasted the war in Iraq as "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time." As a moment of clarity on Iraq, it compared well to his other nuanced positions on Bush's leadership in Iraq. Yet it was just one of a litany of criticisms Kerry aims at Bush, including Medicare, Social Security and science policy (to take just three).

This kind of shotgun spray hits everything and nothing. The unifying message? "The W stands for wrong," Kerry said. Quite apart from sounding childish, there's just one problem with this slogan: it's a play on the most cringe-inducing slogan of the Bush campaign. Does anyone take seriously the Bush campaign's original version--W Stands for Women? Did anyone laugh when Bush joked in 2000 about the number of W's in every Internet address? (He was trying to lampoon Al Gore's suggestion that he contributed to the development of the World Wide Web.) As a matter of campaign strategy, riffing on the middle initial of your rival has very limited appeal.

That's why many of Kerry's long-time aides think the senator may have turned a corner but he hasn't yet reached his destination. You might think the poor poll numbers would jolt the Democrat. But even those carried mixed messages this week. While NEWSWEEK's numbers showed a sharp decline for Kerry on a range of issues (including the economy), there was just enough for the Kerry campaign to cling to--like the right-track/wrong-track number that shows only 43 per cent of voters are happy with the way things are going in the United States. Kerry's aides also found hope in the most recent Gallup poll, which shows just a 1 point advantage for Bush over Kerry among registered voters. (Among likely voters, Bush's lead jumps to 7 points; NEWSWEEK's poll, taken during the Republican convention, shows an 11 point advantage for the president.)

Kerry's willingness to shake up his campaign indicates that the candidate knows his race is deeply troubled. His aides insist that the shakeup is a long-planned strategy to add heft and talent in the final months of the general election. Maybe it is. But the balance of power has shifted markedly inside the Kerry campaign away from the people who sustained it in the darkest days of Iowa, and through the massive growth period after the primaries were sown up.

If the Kerry campaign used to be a joint venture with Ted Kennedy, it's now much more of an alliance between Kerry's most trusted aides and some of Bill Clinton's best and brightest. The biggest of those changes is embodied by the arrival of John Sasso at Kerry's side on the campaign plane. Sasso, who ran the Michael Dukakis campaign for a time, is the kind of tough, experienced operative who knows Kerry well and can tell him where he's screwing up. That's a first for the Kerry campaign, and a sign of maturity that has not been obvious over the last six months. Then there's the arrival of Joe Lockhart, Clinton's former White House press secretary, who withstood the latter half of the impeachment saga. If you can handle the press in full pack-hunting mode, you can easily cope with a tough presidential election.

Sasso and Lockhart are replacing nobody, according to the Kerry campaign. They're just supplementing two of its biggest figures--Mary Beth Cahill, the campaign manager, and Stephanie Cutter, communications director. Both Cahill and Cutter are ex-aides to Teddy Kennedy, drafted into Kerry's campaign last year when it looked like the end of the road for the Massachusetts senator. Both should take enormous credit for helping Kerry survive the Howard Dean tsunami. Yet both have come under fire from Kerry over the failure to respond to the attacks on his Vietnam record.

In truth, their advice is only part of the problem. Kerry's chronic ailment is his lack of focus. He and his senior aides never focused enough on rebutting his image as a flip-flopper. They never focused enough on rebutting the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads that fed on the idea that he was untrustworthy and inconsistent. And to this day Kerry isn't focusing enough on the two or three points he wants to make about the record of George W. Bush. Is it Iraq? Is it the economy? Is it health care or Social Security? Kerry's real test as a candidate is not whether he can appoint talented people to big jobs. It's his ability to decide what matters to him and the voters this fall.