DES MOINES -- Senator John F. Kerry fired his campaign manager yesterday and appointed Senator Edward M. Kennedy's chief of staff to revive his candidacy before it is eclipsed by Democratic front-runner Howard B. Dean.
The replacement of manager Jim Jordan with longtime Democratic strategist Mary Beth Cahill signals far more than just a behind-the-scenes shake-up, several Kerry advisers said. By taking the personally painful step of ousting one of his most trusted lieutenants, Kerry is acknowledging that something has gone badly wrong with his campaign.
"John Kerry has made a decisive change to shake up the campaign, to create new momentum, and to find new ways to convince voters he has the best shot of beating President Bush next year," said former New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen, Kerry's national campaign chairwoman, who played a key role in convincing Kerry that he needs a new strategy.
As recently as last summer, Kerry was leading in fund-raising and New Hampshire primary polls. But Dean has surpassed Kerry in both regards this fall, climbing to a double-digit lead in recent New Hampshire polls and receiving record amounts of campaign donations in the third quarter.
Leaders of some rival Democratic campaigns said a shake-up just 10 weeks before the first votes are cast would be a sign of trouble with any candidate.
"If the candidate and the voters aren't connecting, the problem is the candidate, no one else," said a top adviser to a chief rival to Kerry. "Al Gore could have had 50 campaign managers, but it wouldn't have helped him. He had a fundamental problem connecting with people. Kerry has the same problem -- people don't have a feeling for him when they see him."
Ellen Malcolm, president of Emily's List, which champions female candidates and women's issues and where Cahill worked in the mid-1990s, said yesterday that Kerry must "stabilize his campaign after some ups and downs" to win the Democratic nomination.
"Kerry has got to discover ways that will create fire with voters," Malcolm said. "The good news is that the race is still wide open -- well, not wide open, but the door isn't closed yet."
Kerry, at a brief news conference in Des Moines yesterday, dismissed suggestions that his campaign was in disarray. During a five-minute exchange with reporters, Kerry said 10 times that he wanted to "change the dynamics" of the campaign by removing Jordan. Eight more times he said, "We're moving forward."
"There's a new phase of the campaign now," Kerry said. "Look, our poll numbers here show us only 5 points away from Howard Dean and we're moving. Likewise in New Hampshire. But we only have a certain number of days left, I changed the dynamics, and you guys watch -- we're doing great."
Removing Jordan has been under discussion since September, Kerry campaign advisers said, and was delayed only by Kerry's reluctance to sideline a friend and chief architect of his campaign. Kerry and Jordan clashed at points this fall, especially over newspaper stories in which Jordan's comments and strategic message seemed to overshadow Kerry himself. According to a campaign official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Kerry didn't speak to Jordan for several days after a story indicating the Gephardt and Kerry campaign chiefs were communicating regularly.
The shake-up occurred after Kerry concluded that he needed "to signal a change and alter the perception that we're falling behind Dean," one senior Kerry strategist said yesterday. That was advice the senator recently received from his campaign leaders in New Hampshire, Shaheen and her husband, William, according to the strategist.
For weeks the Shaheens and other Boston-based advisers have paid special attention to poll numbers that not only have Dean in a double-digit lead over Kerry in New Hampshire -- the crucial Jan. 27 primary for both men -- but also suggest Kerry is slipping behind Dean on which candidate would make a stronger challenger next year to Bush.
Recent polls have indicated that Kerry is lagging Dean and Representative Richard A. Gephardt in Iowa, and a Boston Globe poll late last month suggested that he was trailing Dean by 13 percentage points in New Hampshire.
Shaheen would not say yesterday whether she pushed for the removal of Jordan, with whom she worked in 2002 when she ran for US Senate and Jordan led the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
"This was John Kerry's decision to make," Shaheen said.
Cahill is widely regarded in Democratic circles as a winner in tough political races, helping to identify the key voting blocs that candidates need to win primaries and general elections and then devising a message and grass-roots coalitions to generate momentum. These are the aims of any campaign strategist, but Cahill made a name for herself by leading reelection campaigns for Representative Barney Frank and Claiborne Pell, the former Rhode Island senator, and wooing women voters during her time at Emily's List.
Kerry's advisers were divided over the latest shake-up, with some concerned that it will signal a campaign in disarray and a candidate unsure of his bearings.
"It also raises the expectations for Kerry quite a bit," said one adviser who favored keeping Jordan. "Now that he's made a change, he has to prove that this change will pay off in the polls and fund-raising."
According to campaign officials close to both men, Kerry told Jordan on Sunday night that he was being replaced because the campaign had not become a dominant force in the race or among voters despite months of hard campaigning, a string of high-profile endorsements, strong field operations in Iowa and New Hampshire, and paid television ads highlighting Kerry's experience in Washington and biography as a decorated Vietnam War veteran.
Instead, the sources said, Kerry has been mired in minicontroversies over his often-shifting stand on the Iraq war, his shuffling of other campaign aides, his difficulty exciting voters, and his modest fund-raising success. While Kerry has banked more than $20 million this year, second only to Dean, he has failed to show that he can electrify donors, as Dean did last week when he received $5 million in pledges in only two days.
"There have been very high expectations for the Kerry candidacy, and we just haven't met them," one senior Kerry adviser said. "Kerry has a good vision, a great personal story to tell, so much experience that Dean lacks -- and yet we've been consistently behind where we should be ahead."
Kerry declined to delve into his feelings about Jordan yesterday, but one campaign strategist who spoke with Kerry on Sunday night said the senator was "troubled" and "sad" at abandoning his loyal aide, who has worked for Kerry for several years. Some campaign workers were said to be upset by Jordan's sacking, and some friends of Jordan rallied to his side yesterday, saying the decision had more to do with Kerry's vision for his campaign than any strategic errors by Jordan.
"Jim Jordan did a great job -- he's one of the best campaign managers and political strategists I've ever worked with," said Jim Margolis, a media adviser for Kerry. "Every candidate has to have the ability to make changes when it's needed, whether it's the manager, pollster, media consultant, or staff. It's part of the deal."
Glen Johnson contributed to this article. Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.