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Kerry's irreversible error

JOHN KERRY'S presidential campaign needs more than a new campaign manager. It needs a new candidate. In an effort to stop Howard Dean's advance to the Democratic presidential nomination, Kerry fired his own campaign manager. He replaced Jim Jordan with Mary Beth Cahill, a veteran Democratic political operative with strong ties to Massachusetts. This shake-up at the top stopped one rung too low. If Kerry can't change the presidential candidate, the presidential candidate cannot win the Democratic presidential nomination.

Reversing the Kerry slide is going to be difficult, because Kerry cannot reverse the single biggest mistake he made as a presidential candidate: voting for the Iraq war resolution. His vote represents the get-tough-by-getting-to-the-middle brand of thinking that is big in Democratic Leadership Council circles. That thinking, however, is not popular with grass-roots Democratic activists in Iowa and New Hampshire. It pushed them right into the arms of antiwar candidate Howard Dean.

Why did Kerry defy his past and become a war candidate?

He was the Vietnam veteran who returned home to challenge the power structure that sent young men to die in a faraway jungle. How could he ever forget that lesson? He seemed to a year ago when he trusted the very same power structure and cast a vote authorizing war with Iraq. Now young men and women are dying in a faraway desert, betrayed by the same bureaucracy that Kerry scorned for betraying him and the American people in Vietnam. Worse for Kerry is the nagging suspicion that he did not forget the lessons of Vietnam but chose to ignore them because he didn't want to look too antiwar when war was popular.

Kerry can't change his vote on the Iraq resolution, but he can tighten his tortured explanations of why he voted for war but is against the money President Bush sought to rebuild Iraq. Perhaps Cahill, a respected and seasoned political operative, can help him change that and other things.

The political world views her as a bridge between Boston and Washington, one who can return the heart of the Kerry campaign to his New England political roots.

"He went with Washington advisers instead of doing it with the same people who got him to the finish line before," says Charles Manning, a Massachusetts Republican consultant. "As a result, he sounds like a Washington-based US senator. He is caught up in that world down there. He really doesn't relate to what people are looking for." Whether a change in strategy can turn Kerry into a winner, says Manning, is "the big question. He hasn't been able to do it so far." Wintry weather should be enough to stop the sessions with 21 consultants gathered on Kerry's Nantucket porch; Cahill can quicken the pace of response to campaign news and consolidate decision-making. To accomplish that, Kerry must empower her and make sure all roads lead to her office. There can be no quiet back trails to Kerry through consultants like Bob Shrum.

But logistics are only a piece of it. The harder part is sitting Kerry down and explaining why it is dumb to attack Howard Dean for rejecting federal public funds even as Kerry prepares to make the same move. When Cahill does that, she should also explain to Kerry that the public's doubts and the media's questions are not prompted by malice but by the confusion he has been sowing since his campaign began. He just isn't connecting with Democratic primary voters.

"From the beginning, John Kerry's message has been all over the place. It has no discipline, no focus," observes Democratic strategist Dan Payne, who is unaligned with any presidential campaign. "He hasn't answered the question, `What is it about John Kerry that makes him the only choice?' "

By now Kerry must know that resume alone is not enough of an answer.

Kerry has had a few good moments. He needs more. Attacking Dean is now a required part of the Kerry strategy, but even if the attacks succeed in wresting votes from Dean, there is no guarantee those votes will go to Kerry. His Iraq vote is a burden he cannot put down.

Imagine how frustrating that must be for Kerry. One war launched his national political ambitions. Another war could end them.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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