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Kerry campaign shifts gear into attack mode

Candidate seen setting agenda as debates near

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The perception of a Democratic presidential campaign in disarray remained so widespread Wednesday morning that Senator John F. Kerry got unsolicited advice from a woman attending a town hall meeting on Social Security: Beef up your rapid-response team, the retired lawyer suggested.

The remark prompted laughter, including from the candidate himself. But the Kerry campaign was already undergoing a transformation.

Between a speech Monday in New York that gave a point-by-point accounting of continued problems in Iraq, and a speech Friday in Philadelphia that accused President Bush of taking his eye off the real terrorist threat, Osama bin Laden, the Kerry campaign seized control of the political dialogue during a week that was supposed to have been dominated by the incumbent as he visited the United Nations and invited Iraq's prime minister to the White House.

Through speeches and two news conferences, Kerry attacked Bush for having created a costly diversion in the war on terror by invading Iraq. His ad-makers pumped out television commercials overnight that used footage from the day before to criticize the president's policies and statements. And the new message team of John Sasso, Michael McCurry, and Joe Lockhart helped manage events in a way they believe will put Kerry in a strong position heading into the first presidential debate Thursday night.

For the first time since August, when the Republican National Convention and criticism of Kerry's military record swamped the campaign, Kerry and his team were setting the agenda rather than responding to attacks. A half-dozen polls released last week indicated Bush's postconvention lead over Kerry narrowing.

''Look at the president's news conference today," a senior Kerry adviser, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said Thursday. ''Every question he was asked about was about issues we raised. That's how you know you had a good week."

It was a change that Democratic advocates had long awaited.

''John Kerry turned his boat into the ambush of Iraq today," Mark Green, the Democrats' mayoral candidate in New York in 2001, said after Monday's speech at New York University, evoking the image of Kerry steering his Vietnam War swift boat into enemy gunfire. ''History's verdict is in on this war, but the public hasn't heard that because of all the static and noise from the Republicans."

Bush responded by accusing Kerry of adopting a new position on Iraq, that of an antiwar candidate. He told audiences that his opponent ''would prefer the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein to the situation in Iraq today." (Kerry had said in his NYU speech, ''We have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure.") The president blasted Kerry for accusing him and Prime Minister Iyad Allawi of Iraq of offering an overly optimistic assessment of the current conditions in Iraq. And his campaign produced a tart new ad showing Kerry windsurfing and accusing him of tacking both ways on a host of issues.

''They said we had a convention bounce. Now the bounce is settling and they're calling it momentum," Bush-Cheney spokesman Reed Dickens said yesterday. ''But given that we're 37 days out, we'd rather have our candidate's record, message, and polling position than theirs."

Yet there was an undercurrent of concern within the Bush campaign, perhaps best exemplified by its decision to have the White House communications director, Dan Bartlett, personally call reporters to critique Kerry's speech Monday. Typically, day-to-day contact with reporters covering Kerry's campaign is handled by midlevel spokesmen for the Bush-Cheney campaign.

''It's almost breathtaking to see how he continues to reinvent himself on this issue," Bartlett said of Kerry.

In his New York University speech, Kerry accused Bush of ''stubborn incompetence." In stops in Jacksonville, Orlando, West Palm Beach, Philadelphia, and Columbus, Ohio, the Massachusetts senator repeatedly accused Bush of ''living in fantasy world" about the conditions in Iraq, or the prospects for both peace and democratic elections in January. He told reporters outside a Columbus fire station, ''We have an administration in disarray."

Events bolstered Kerry's message. Last weekend, Allawi told ABC News that terrorists were ''still pouring in" to Iraq. Over the course of the week, two Americans were beheaded, a Briton captured with them was still held, and 10 more foreigners were kidnapped. On Thursday, appearing with Bush in the White House Rose Garden, Allawi said up to 15 of Iraq's 18 provinces were safe, adding, ''I call upon the responsible media -- throughout the world, not only here -- to look at the facts as they are in Iraq."

Bush and Allawi also said they expected elections to proceed as scheduled in January, but Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said both Thursday and Friday they might not be held in all provinces. He was contradicted by Richard L. Armitage, deputy secretary of state, who told a House panel Friday afternoon, ''We're going to have an election that is free and open and that has to be open to all citizens."

Kerry's speechmaking was supported by his rapid-response team -- headed by Lockhart, a former spokesman for President Clinton -- and his ad-makers. At a rally Tuesday night in Orlando, Kerry read aloud a transcript in which the president said hours earlier in New York that the CIA was ''guessing" in its estimates of the conditions in Iraq.

''The CIA laid out, ah . . ." Kerry began, saying the ''ah" aloud and pausing as the verbatim transcript showed Bush shifting gears, ''several scenarios that said, life could be lousy, life could be better. And they were just guessing as to what the conditions might be like."

Putting down the piece of paper, Kerry asked a crowd of nearly 10,000, ''Ladies and gentlemen, does that make you feel safer?" The answer was a resounding ''No!"

Kerry ad-makers also produced three commercials in three successive days that pivoted off current events. One, titled ''Juvenile," attacked Bush for the windsurfing ad. Another, titled ''Right Track," debuted Friday and seized upon a comment Bush made Thursday in the Rose Garden in which he said that internal polls in Iraq indicated more Iraqis than Americans believed their country was headed in the right direction. ''The right track?" the ad asks. ''Americans are being kidnapped, held hostage, even beheaded. Over a thousand American soldiers have died."

While Lockhart is back at headquarters, Kerry is joined on the road by Sasso and McCurry. Sasso tends to stick close to Kerry, but McCurry regularly wanders back to the press seats, with some of Kerry's longer-serving, but more junior, aides coming back to listen.

The former press secretary reinforced Kerry's contention that Bush misled the country before the war and is misleading it now.

''Either he is so rigidly certain that his vision is correct that he can set aside contradictory information and not absorb it, which is a damning comment, or he, in fact, gets this information and chooses not to share it with the American people, in which case he is deliberately misleading them," McCurry said as Kerry's campaign plane flew from Florida to Ohio.

Emphasizing the campaign's message of the week, he added: ''Either one is a bad place to be as president, and is evidence of a lack of true presidential leadership."

Anne E. Kornblut of the Globe staff contributed to this story from Waco, Texas. Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com.

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