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Candidate in need of clarity

WASHINGTON

JOHN KERRY'S decision to shake up a floundering presidential campaign has come later than Al Gore's similar decision four years ago but much earlier than Ronald Reagan's move just before the New Hampshire primary in 1980. The lesson is that the shake-up is always less important than its effect on what the candidate has to say to the voters. It is a cliche because it is true: The makeup of a presidential campaign is important to politicians and journalists; its message content is what either moves or doesn't move voters. When something is wrong, the campaign staff can be a metaphor, but the real problem is always the candidate.

Over the weekend, as he was making up his mind to stop the drift and go for the shake-up, Kerry illustrated his own problem on national television. He delivered a stern rebuke of Howard Dean's decision to raise and spend unlimited campaign funds during the primaries; when asked how his own campaign would respond, Kerry said he would decide what to do in a few days. One immediate result of yesterday's change was to speed up the announcement that Kerry will also opt out of the public financing system, though for now it will probably have to be with his own family's money.

It has been like this for too long, during which time a natural consensus Democratic candidate who is as well prepared to be president as anyone who has ever run for the office became an also-ran nationally and an underdog in his own backyard.

In a word, the problem was clarity.

The lack of clarity was reflected in an astonishing Balkanization of the campaign -- multiple decision-making centers, layered instead of clear lines of authority, money wasted, a classic, Washington-centered operation. Worst of all, the candidate became the campaign manager.

The lack of clarity was reflected in Kerry's muddled message. Sometimes he was selling biography and resume, as if the presidency were a career move. On Iraq, he ended up selling too much ambivalence and not enough conviction expressed succinctly. On domestic affairs, he developed cogent responses to the top issues of economics and health care but went weeks without emphasizing them.

He has become an almost daily stalker of Howard Dean, good at generating headlines but with an overwhelmingly negative campaign. Instead of improvement, his position in New Hampshire (the primary he must win to stay alive) showed further deterioration. From fund-raisers and other insiders, the diagnosis was of a dying campaign.

Two points about the shakeup are especially important. The Kerry candidacy is not in mortal peril because of the previous campaign manager, Jim Jordan -- a skilled and experienced Democratic politician. Nor will it be saved because there is a new campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, another true professional.

What's intriguing is that she has been Senator Edward Kennedy's top aide in Washington. The fact that Kennedy gave his blessing to this change over the weekend because it represents a fundamental change in Kerry's direction is significant. It gives Cahill an enormous opportunity, if she uses it quickly, to cut through the layers of Kerry Inc., stop the balkanization, and put together a slimmed down, disciplined campaign.

The second point is that Kerry already has the message model for a revival -- the emphasis on economic issues important to ordinary Americans that propelled him past William Weld in their contest for Kerry's Senate seat in 1996. That campaign, "Fighting For Us," separated Weld from most Democrats and independents who live off their paychecks. This time he has the same kinds of issues (middle-income tax cuts and stopping the ruinous escalation of health insurance costs) that can separate him from Dean.

Al Gore had taken his bloated campaign home to Tennessee by Labor Day of 1999, then decided to take his challenge from Bill Bradley seriously. Ronald Reagan had to survive a near-death experience after losing Iowa to George H.W. Bush in January 1980. For Kerry, therefore, it is late but not too late.

The irony is that Kerry's belated move comes during a week when Dean is going all out to convince Democrats with his money and two important labor union endorsements that the campaign is effectively over.

The only problem in his attempted shift from grass roots outsider to power-playing front-runner is that he trails Dick Gephardt in Iowa, is just slightly ahead of Kerry, and has no clear hold on any state in the early voting schedule next year outside of New Hampshire.

The further irony is that if Kerry had campaigned in New Hampshire with the same effectiveness that Gephardt has doggedly demonstrated in Iowa, this week's moves by Dean would have been laughable.

Kerry cut quite a pose the other day in a brightly colored vest, shooting pheasant. But the fact is he has always cut a better pose telling voters how he can make their lives better.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com.

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