WASHINGTON -- With his decision to publicly dump his campaign manager this week, Senator John F. Kerry offers a vivid snapshot of the anguish spreading through some corners of the Democratic field as Howard B. Dean barrels toward the presidential nomination with increasing velocity. Kerry, who is arguably the most threatened by Dean's ascent, announced yesterday that he fired longtime adviser Jim Jordan because he wanted to "change the dynamics" of the race. The move, while not entirely unexpected, intrigued some political strategists who question how much effect the new campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, can have in the two months until the first primary contest.
But beyond its strategic risks, the staff shake-up reflects what Democrats inside and outside the Kerry camp describe as an increasing level of concern about a political operation that once seemed all but certain to win.
The anxiety within the Kerry camp rose significantly over the last week, as Dean won the endorsement of two important labor unions and announced that he will forgo federal matching funds, potentially allowing him to outspend his opponents throughout the primary process, sources close to the campaign said.
"Kerry's on life support right now and is desperately trying to find ways to stay alive," one Democratic operative who is familiar with the campaign said. "It's a little like shifting the chairs on the Titanic, except he threw off his best chair."
While other Democrats are clearly feeling the effects of Dean's insurgency -- Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri is facing a serious challenge in his backyard, in Iowa, home to the first caucuses -- Kerry is locked in a must-win battle for New Hampshire, where Dean has shown a double-digit lead in recent polls. And although all the major candidates in the race are working to derail Dean's candidacy -- Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, and retired General Wesley K. Clark of Arkansas have all taken turns attacking Dean over various issues -- the Dean-Kerry rivalry has drawn the most attention, in part because Kerry grappled so publicly months ago with the question of whether to home in on Dean or not.
All of these challenges, strategists inside and outside say, have been made far more difficult by disputes between a team of Boston advisers and their Washington counterparts -- and a sense that "no one is in charge," as a rival Democrat puts it.
Hiring Cahill is a belated attempt to bring the rivalries under control, several Democrats say.
Kerry supporters portray it as a relatively insignificant shift, the kind that is routine in any campaign. "If it's not going well, you make changes," said former Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, several of whose former advisers are working for Kerry. "I think John has run a pretty good campaign. It's his to win."
Kerry indicated that the reorganization is his way of giving the campaign a jolt, though he stopped short of admitting it was a sign he is not doing well. "We are confident about the direction of the campaign," he said during a trip to Iowa. "I think there is a new phase of the campaign now. . . . We are changing the dynamics and moving forward every day." By announcing the change on a Monday morning, when it was guaranteed to make headlines, Kerry seemed determined to send a signal that he is in clear command of his campaign, decisive enough to make tough decisions that will give his momentum a boost.
Aides to opponents, however, were quick to spin it as a superficial solution to a more fundamental problem with Kerry's candidacy. Even some strategists sympathetic to Kerry said the move was somewhat clumsy, drawing attention away from his main message of the day, about veterans, while underscoring the instability of his campaign infrastructure.
"Ultimately, all this stuff about who's running the campaign is overrated," said Steve Elmendorf, an adviser to Gephardt. "I think the issue is the candidate and what the candidate has to say and what's his message and why does he want to be president.
"I think the failing of the Kerry campaign is Kerry has not articulated a particularly compelling message. I don't think that's Jim's fault, and I don't think Mary Beth is going to fix that," Elmendorf said.
John Weaver, a consultant who worked for Republican Senator John McCain until taking on Democratic clients in recent years, said there is a chance the shake-up could yield results. "If this move by Kerry consolidates all the camps into one, then it's a good thing," Weaver said. "If it doesn't -- and I suspect it won't, because all campaigns ultimately are reflective of the candidate -- then this is a significant symptom of what's wrong with the candidate and the campaign."
The real meaning of the reshuffling, Weaver said, is that "it's clear the campaign manager job in Kerry-world is akin to being mayor of Beirut."