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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Kerry Challenged by Harsh Campaign

The Democrat's camp is working to adapt after missteps and an early and fierce GOP assault.

March 21, 2004|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Before taking a vacation, John F. Kerry was looking forward to a victory lap -- a period of skipping from state to state to revel in his success at effectively locking up the Democratic presidential nomination.

Instead, by the time the Massachusetts senator finally made it to his vacation home in the Idaho mountains late last week, he had spent two weeks mostly on the defensive, confronted by an aggressive opponent who didn't give him a chance to catch his breath and began pummeling him with hard-hitting ads.

Kerry also contributed to his problems as he switched from fending off Democratic rivals to gearing up for the general election campaign against President Bush. He suggested at one point that foreign leaders preferred him to Bush, and later called Republican critics "crooked" -- offhand remarks that have since haunted him.

"I would give him a B," said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who ran former Vice President Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. "He's hit a couple of potholes, but he's still on course."

The bumps speak to the new political landscape Kerry must traverse as he takes on Bush directly.

"You're exhausted, and the campaign is exhausted and worn out," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant based in Los Angeles. "And you're taking on the White House, the Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee all at once -- all highly developed operations that have been sitting around for a year waiting for this."

After Kerry emerged as his party's presumed nominee in early March, he continued to campaign in the Southern and Midwestern states that had not yet held their primary contests -- in part to hone his message for the general election. He stressed his belief in "mainstream American values and common sense," and lambasted Bush for "broken promises" on policies ranging from education to the Iraq war.

But his message was overtaken by the suddenly fierce firefight between the two camps. The president's campaign quickly launched television commercials challenging Kerry as weak on defense and charging he would raise taxes by $900 billion.

"I don't know who was happier the day [the Democratic race ended]: John Kerry or George Bush," said Dan Payne, a Boston-based media consultant who worked on three of Kerry's Senate campaigns. "It signaled that George Bush could campaign all-out against Kerry."

Kerry aides acknowledged that the speed of the Bush assault was startling to them. "I think Bush redefined March Madness for us, coming out of the Rose Garden so fast," said senior advisor Michael Meehan.

As the president's campaign unveiled its first attacks, Kerry's campaign was in the middle of a move, uprooting its staff from a cramped townhouse on Capitol Hill to a large suite in an office building in downtown Washington. E-mail was down for two days, and the staff changed phone numbers.

Despite the logistical complications, Meehan argued that the campaign adapted quickly to the general election environment.

"We've proven to be very nimble [in] responding to Bush's charges and focusing on delivering our message of the day," he said.

He pointed to other positive signs: Every one of Kerry's primary opponents, with the exception of Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, has expressed support for his candidacy -- an unusual consensus among Democrats. And the campaign has been raising money at a robust pace, raking in more than $13 million just in Internet contributions since March 2.

Thursday, the Democratic National Committee is hosting a gala fundraiser featuring former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Kerry will be joined at the event by many of his onetime opponents in a show of unity.

Aides also hope the evening will showcase a rested and ready candidate. Before his break in Idaho, the strain of full-time campaigning appeared to have caught up with Kerry.

Some of his recent problems, Payne said, stemmed from fatigue.

"Kerry has been running hard for over a year," he said. He also noted that Kerry went from being the early favorite in the Democratic race "to bottom-dweller, and back up again."

Said Payne: "That takes a lot out of you."

Kerry's miscues included his comment at a fundraiser in Florida indicating he had spoken with leaders from around the world who hoped he would defeat Bush -- an assertion that Republicans have aggressively challenged in speeches, television interviews and ads.

In Chicago two days later, the senator was caught on a live microphone telling a worker at a sheet metal plant that his Republican critics were "the most crooked ... lying group" he had ever seen. GOP leaders quickly demanded an apology. He did not back down.

Last week, Kerry appeared to have been hurt by a tussle with the Bush campaign over foreign policy. The fight was sparked by a Bush ad criticizing Kerry's vote last year against spending $87 billion to support operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In explaining his stance, Kerry noted he had supported an earlier version of the measure that would have offset its costs by rolling back tax cuts for the wealthy. "I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it," he said in Huntington, W.Va.

The next day, Vice President Dick Cheney mocked Kerry's equivocal answer. A day later, the Bush team inserted it into a television commercial.

Analysts said the line epitomized a weakness that Kerry would have to address as the general election gathered steam.

"He's perceived as taking all sides of every issue," said Paul Watanabe, a professor of political science at University of Massachusetts in Boston. "That has really dogged John Kerry all his political life. The question is: Where is the center of the man, in terms of his principles, plans and policies? He's got to give some sense of that."

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