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Kerry Pushes Back With $45-Million Ad Campaign

Effort aims to counter criticism of his war record and to restore his standing with voters.

September 01, 2004|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NASHVILLE — Sen. John F. Kerry's campaign announced plans Tuesday to launch a $45-million television commercial campaign in 20 states, resuming a robust advertising effort after limiting its air arsenal to defensive ads for the last month.

The new spots, which will begin airing Friday, come amid an increasingly loud chorus of alarm in Democratic circles about the state of Kerry's campaign, as many strategists and party operatives are expressing fear that the Massachusetts senator has been harmed by a series of hard-edged attacks, many of them challenging his Vietnam War record.

"The optimism that a lot of us had all spring and into the summer is starting to fade into concern," said Democratic pollster Paul Maslin. "We're all looking at the same polls and there's been slippage."

There are signs that Kerry himself is uneasy. He spent much of the last two days huddled with campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill and other top advisors in Nantucket, Mass., where he was vacationing during the Republican convention. In recent days, the senator also has solicited advice from longtime friends about whether he needs to reshuffle his staff, according to Democratic sources.

On Tuesday, the campaign officially confirmed two new hires: former White House press secretary Joe Lockhart, tapped to be a senior advisor charged with communications strategy; and former Clinton advisor Joel Johnson, chosen to take over the campaign's rapid response operations. Both are working with Doug Sosnik, Clinton's former political director who is now at the Democratic National Committee.

But aides denied that any staff members were being removed or replaced, despite persistent rumors of internal upheaval. In his first briefing, Lockhart told reporters aboard the candidate's plane Tuesday evening that "Sen. Kerry was as surprised as many of us on staff were" to hear the reports. "The leadership of this campaign is the leadership that will be there on election day," he added.

But sources familiar with discussions inside the campaign said that Kerry's advisors had been shaken by attacks on the senator's war record that had eroded his standing with voters.

"I think everyone is basically making an effort to regroup," said one Democrat familiar with internal conversations. "There's a sense that we need to figure out where we go from here. It wasn't a great month."

The angst is dominating discussions within the party, with many Democrats fretting that the campaign put too much emphasis on Kerry's service in Vietnam, a record that has been undermined by a veteran group's assaults on his bravery and antiwar activities.

"They've had a significant impact," said one strategist who did not want to be named. "It's completely depressing Democratic party operatives." But some cautioned that the campaign should guard against overreacting to the gloom.

"Every campaign has ups and downs and ebbs and flows, and it's really important to keep your eyes focused down the road," said Mark Fabiani, who served as Al Gore's communications director in his 2000 presidential bid. "I don't think people want to see changes in tactics, changes in staff, changes in approach. All those things feed into a series of stories that are not helpful."

Kerry's aides did their best to strike an aggressive posture Tuesday, announcing plans to hold a midnight rally in Ohio an hour after President Bush is expected to finish his acceptance speech in New York on Thursday. Kerry, his running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, and their wives will then embark on four separate bus tours through battleground states.

Meanwhile, the campaign pledged to regain its presence on television with new ads that would run through election day. Besides traditional outlets, the Kerry ads also will run on national cable channels and some will target African-American and Spanish-speaking viewers. They will run in a raft of states that represent a combined 213 electoral votes. It takes 270 electoral votes to win the election.

The $45-million buy will exhaust more than half of the $75 million in public funds the Democratic nominee is allowed by law to spend through the election. Communications director Stephanie Cutter also said they were reserving "a significant contingency" of money to spend on other commercials as needed.

The new ads will roll out in stages, starting with 10 states, aides said. The campaign declined to say where they would begin airing, but said they would eventually run in states such as Colorado, Louisiana, Arkansas and Missouri -- areas that many political observers believe could be difficult for Kerry to win.


Times staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.

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