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Key Aide to Kerry Quits Campaign

Chris Lehane was said to have pushed for a harder line against the Dean candidacy.

September 16, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Democratic operative Chris Lehane resigned Monday as communications director for Sen. John F. Kerry's presidential campaign, sending a new tremor through a candidacy that has been struggling to regain momentum in recent weeks.

Lehane's resignation comes at a time when Kerry, initially considered by many Democrats the front-runner in the race for the 2004 presidential nomination, has fallen behind former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states on the road to the nomination. Lehane's departure also follows persistent reports of tension among Kerry staff members, largely over the issue of how forcefully to confront Dean.

Lehane, best known as the spokesman for Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, would not comment on reports of conflict among the Kerry staff. "John Kerry is a great American who has assembled a superb team to take on George W. Bush, and I wish him the best of luck as he and the campaign move forward," he said Monday.

But sources inside the campaign say Lehane was among a group of advisors arguing for the Massachusetts senator to sharpen his differences with Dean as the former Vermont governor surged in the polls. Another camp, including prominent Democratic media consultant and speechwriter Bob Shrum, had argued for Kerry to at least temporarily remain above the fray, officials said.

Even more important may have been disputes over the speech Kerry delivered earlier this month in Charleston, S.C., formally launching his campaign. Campaign sources said Lehane was among those who felt frustrated that Kerry had not attempted to wrap his candidacy in a more expansive message that went beyond his background as a Vietnam veteran. In that process, sources said, Lehane also clashed with Shrum.

Shrum also refused to comment on Lehane's departure. "I never talk about internal things in a campaign," he said. "I think John Kerry is a terrific candidate. I think he is going to be the Democratic nominee for president."

Lehane, who lives in San Francisco, runs a consulting firm with another former Clinton administration aide, Mark Fabiani; the pair's clients have included California Gov. Gray Davis, various sports franchises and law firms. Fabiani is now advising retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark as he considers his own presidential run, while Lehane is consulting for the California AFL-CIO in its opposition to the Davis recall.

Lehane was not yet on the Kerry payroll, although he was expected to join the campaign in a full-time position this fall. He indicated his intention to resign shortly after Kerry formally declared his candidacy Sept. 2, sources said, but did not make the decision public until Monday.

Jim Jordan, Kerry's campaign manager, who often found himself allied with Lehane in the internal debates, praised him. But Jordan said the rumors of a broader shake-up in the campaign, which have swirled since Kerry's Sept. 2 speech, were incorrect.

"We will continue to grow, we have a plan for bringing additional people in," said Jordan. "But there are no departures contemplated."

Kerry's campaign has assembled a large and, to some Democratic eyes, unwieldy operation -- campaign staffers led by Jordan; national consultants such as Shrum and pollsters Mike Donilon and Mark Mellman; and Massachusetts advisors, who include John Sasso, chief political strategist for 1988 Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis. One internal source said that since the criticism of Kerry's announcement speech, more authority seems to be centralizing in the day-to-day campaign staff, which Jordan heads.

Ironically, even as Lehane departs, the campaign seems to have settled on a tougher line against Dean. Kerry has not yet criticized Dean in the Democratic candidates' debates over the last two weeks, as Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut has done. But the Kerry campaign has issued a series of pointed statements in the last few days challenging Dean's statements on issues from the Middle East to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Asked if there was still a debate over how aggressively to confront Dean, one Kerry aide said: "Not anymore."

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