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THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

New Kerry Advisor Lockhart Finds a Place in the Middle of the Action

The former Clinton spokesman recruited to sharpen the message is doing that and more.

September 22, 2004|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Joe Lockhart didn't get a lot of time to settle into his new job.

From the moment he came aboard Sen. John F. Kerry's campaign in late August, the former White House press secretary was fending off reports that the Democrat's presidential bid was in trouble and batting down rumors that his arrival signaled a staff shake-up.

This week, he was drawn into the controversy over CBS News' broadcast of faked documents about President Bush's National Guard service. Lockhart said a CBS producer had put him in touch with a former Guard official who gave her the memos, but that he and the campaign had nothing to do with the documents, or the story.

By now, the 45-year-old communications strategist should be used to crisis management. Six years ago, he began work as President Clinton's chief spokesman -- on the very day the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee held its first impeachment hearing.

The quick-witted, slightly rumpled spokesman quickly became a well-known name in political circles.

Now, six years later, he's temporarily left his Washington consulting firm to bring a sharper edge to Kerry's campaign. And Lockhart has stepped into his new job with the ease of someone approaching a familiar adversary.

"This is my fifth campaign, which makes me about 83," he said wryly.

Despite reports of internal jockeying among campaign staffers, Lockhart disputes the notion that he has taken over anyone's job.

When pressed by reporters on a recent conference call about what role he is playing at the campaign, he responded rhetorically, "What am I doing here?" He jokingly called his new gig "a temporary change in lifestyle."

"We've made additions here, but nothing that changes the structure of the campaign," he said.

But as one of several euphemistically named "senior advisors," Lockhart has become one of the top players in Kerry's kitchen cabinet, which now includes a raft of former Clinton aides.

He was originally hired to travel with the candidate and deal with the press corps on the campaign trail. But Lockhart has spent most of his time at Kerry's Washington headquarters, revamping communications strategy.

Those familiar with the campaign's inner workings said that Kerry's message is now being crafted jointly by Lockhart and Bob Shrum, Kerry's media consultant. Communications director Stephanie Cutter has remained on the campaign plane to manage the daily news.

She praised Lockhart for offering "key strategic advice."

"He's one of the best in the party in terms of communications strategy," Cutter said in an interview.

Lockhart cut his teeth on the presidential campaigns of Jimmy Carter, Walter F. Mondale and Michael S. Dukakis, then was tapped to be national press secretary for Clinton's 1996 reelection bid. He took over as White House press secretary in October 1998, where, in quick succession, he dealt with Clinton's impeachment, questions about the president's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky and the bombing of Kosovo.

After leaving the White House in late 2000, Lockhart did a short stint as an advisor to Oracle CEO Larry Ellison. He then opened a consulting firm, Glover Park Group, with Carter Eskew and Michael Feldman, former aides to Vice President Al Gore.

Now Lockhart is back to the grueling demands of campaign life: dawn conference calls, queries from reporters, wearingly late nights at headquarters.

But returning to that frenzied lifestyle "wasn't a tough call" for Lockhart, Feldman said. "As a competitor and someone who cares very deeply about the fate of the free world, I don't think there's much that could have kept him away."

Lockhart didn't know the candidate well -- he met with him for the first time at Kerry's Nantucket home on Aug. 30.

But his combative style has already had an effect on the Massachusetts senator, whose critique of President Bush has become markedly more pointed. On Monday, for example, Kerry offered his most sweeping and detailed denunciation of Bush's handling of Iraq, accusing him of creating "a crisis of historic proportions."

Lockhart has buttressed Kerry's rhetoric with his own biting language. During a conference call with reporters in early September, he derided a group of Vietnam veterans behind a series of anti-Kerry ads as "pathological liars."

Former White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry, who tapped Lockhart to be his successor in 1998, said that while his colleague has an aggressive posture, he also knows how to temper his tone.

"He understands you have to have the velvet glove," McCurry said in an interview earlier this month, days before he himself joined Kerry's campaign as a traveling spokesman. "You have to be an advocate ... and that gives you the right to turn around and be a little sharp."

Lockhart's diplomatic skills were on display last week when Associated Press asked him to comment on the criticism of Ed Rendell, the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, that Kerry had spent too much time listening to Washington consultants.

"Our love for Gov. Rendell is unconditional," Lockhart responded. "We love ... getting his advice, even when it's delivered as a swift kick."

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Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report.

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