Kerry in chaos as 'Curse of Shrum' strikes
DEMOCRAT challenger John Kerry’s election campaign is in turmoil. The presidential hopeful is in trouble and is running out of time, while President George W Bush presses ahead in the polls.
In a desperate attempt to claw back the slide, Kerry decided to revamp his team by bringing in veteran Clinton operatives such as Joe Lockhart, John Sasso, Michael Whouley and Mike McCurry to oversee key parts of the campaign.
But the move has caused more division and chaos in the campaign and the arrival of the Clinton team means Kerry’s original campaign strategist, Bob Shrum, has seen his influence diminished.
In Democrat circles they are beginning to talk about "the Curse of Shrum". The veteran strategist, who played a similar role for Al Gore and has lost all seven presidential campaigns he has worked on, is rapidly emerging as the fall guy for the Kerry campaign’s lacklustre August.
Shrum was blamed for Kerry’s failure to respond decisively to the attacks on his Vietnam record by the so-called "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth". As well as the inability to project a clear and consistent message, the group is widely seen to have damaged Kerry’s standing with the electorate.
"Lockhart’s approach is very different," said one campaign official. "He realises the only thing the American people hate more than a bully is somebody who won’t fight back."
The situation has deteriorated so much, however, that Kerry was asked: "Who is running this campaign?" on the popular Don Imus radio show on Wednesday morning. That the question could even be asked testified to the muddle and confusion that has characterised the Democratic campaign.
One problem is that Kerry likes listening to everyone’s opinions, infuriating officials who want snappy decisions made before events spin out of the campaign’s control.
Although Kerry insisted to Imus that "Mary Beth Cahill is running this campaign and she’s doing a spectacular job", insiders say that the real power in the camp belongs to the new arrivals such as Lockhart and, in particular, Sasso whom some campaign officials are calling the campaign’s "quarterback".
Other campaign sources told the Washington Post that Sasso is the "ber adult" on the campaign trail and the candidate’s "best buddy".
The divides in the Kerry camp are symptomatic of a wider divide within the Democratic party: between the party of Teddy Kennedy and the party of Bill Clinton. Shrum, who has worked with Kennedy for more than 20 years, was frozen out during the Clinton years, playing no part in either the 1992 and 1996 elections but was brought back into the fold by Kerry.
The new arrivals are all Clintonistas, however, who believe that Kerry needs to be sharper and quicker to react against Republican attacks than he has been so far. Some leading Democrats fret that simply reorganising the campaign structure will not be enough.
According to Tony Coelho, who chaired Gore’s campaign four years ago: "There is a sense of disarray on that campaign that everyone is talking about. You have a great deal of creative talent coming in and a great deal of experience, but no leader of the campaign."
And, he warns darkly: "If Kerry tries to be that leader, they’re in trouble.
"There is nobody in charge and you have these two teams that are generally not talking to each other."
Clinton’s former pollster Dick Morris, now a sharp critic of Democrats, goes further: "Lockhart and McCurry face the same problem that Shrum encountered before them: They have a candidate who can’t figure out why he’s running. Kerry doesn’t have a strategy because he doesn’t have an agenda or even clear issue positions."
Ultimately, however, Kerry’s inability to produce a coherent message on his position vis-a-vis the war has consistently got in the way of his attempts to change the subject to the state of the economy or other domestic issues.
"The president is winning the debate over Iraq, despite the conditions on the ground," says Ivo Daalder, a former National Security Council aide in the Clinton administration. "You have to go at the heart of the argument Bush is making: that Iraq is part of the war on terror. You have to make clear it has undermined our ability to fight the war on terror."
"We have to separate [Iraq] from the overall war on terror and make the case that this diverted resources to something that did not contribute to the war on terror," argues Lockhart from his post as Kerry’s new senior communications adviser.
Earlier this month a Gallup poll found that the percentage of Americans who considered the war a mistake had fallen from 54% in July to just 38% in early September.
Despite the recent escalation of serious violence in Iraq the administration plans to use next week’s visit by the Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi to remind voters that Saddam’s departure was something that was long overdue as well as using the visit to highlight moves towards election scheduled for Iraq next month.
As the election nears, so the stakes increase. Mistakes now cannot easily be recovered. Although last week’s Gallup poll that gave Bush a 14-point lead is considered a rogue poll, an average of previous national polls suggests Bush has a four to five point lead. More significant, however, are the state by state polls. These too suggest that Kerry has ground to make up and that crucial swing states such as Ohio and Wisconsin are now slipping from his grasp.
Just as troubling for the challenger, he only enjoys a 49-45% lead in reliably Democrat Illinois and New Jersey according to the most recent surveys.
Any resources he must commit to shore up his position there are necessarily resources unavailable to him in swing states. This in turn means that Kerry must win both Florida and Pennsylvania if he is to have a realistic chance of victory. The latter, won by Gore in 2000, is currently a toss up while Bush has a two point lead in Florida.
The Kerry campaign retains a stoic countenance in public, but it is playing defence while the Republicans continue to press forward on the attack.
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