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Senator John F. Kerry waved to a group of photographers at the rim of the Grand Canyon on Aug. 9.
Senator John F. Kerry waved to a group of photographers at the rim of the Grand Canyon on Aug. 9. (Globe Staff Photo / Dina Rudick)

On the trail of Kerry's failed dream

Page 6 of 16 -- Bush expressed his "deep disgust." The White House tried to distance the president from the scandal, but the furor mounted with each shocking revelation.

A black mood settled on Bush-Cheney campaign headquarters. For weeks, Republicans had been riding high, churning out negative ads morphing Kerry into a liberal loser, a second coming of the failed Michael S. Dukakis.

They could control the image-making. They couldn't control events. And the war in Iraq, already taking a toll on the president's popularity, now threatened his reelection. "You sort of see the campaign going down in flames," McKinnon recalled.

McKinnon called this period "Black May."

But the Kerry campaign wasn't firing on all cylinders either. The prison scandal, a spike in American casualties in Iraq, and the public investigation into the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks hurt Bush, but didn't necessarily help Kerry. Still largely unknown outside Massachusetts, the Democratic candidate was having trouble getting his message across.

This might have been an ideal time to hit Bush hard. Instead, the candidate proceeded on a deliberate course, crafted by media adviser Bob Shrum and campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, to raise money, broadcast policy proposals. and advertise Kerry's life story. In early May, the campaign announced a $25 million, mostly biographical advertising buy -- the largest single buy to that date by either side.

Kerry's appearances focused on domestic issues, largely because campaign-organized focus groups rated healthcare and the economy as top concerns. At one campaign stop, Kerry even refused to answer whether the prison scandal should force Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to resign, saying "I've already commented."

When Kerry finally started giving foreign policy speeches by the end of May, his words had a term paper quality. He would lay out "four imperatives" and insist that in the war on terror "we need to be clear about our purposes and our principles." Bush, meanwhile, was casting the campaign as a "choice between an America that leads the world with strength and confidence or an America that is uncertain in the face of danger."

If the Kerry team expected to sit back and let headlines sink the president, they were wrong. In June the bad news out of Iraq began to ebb, and Bush advisers realized the president's poll numbers had not dropped as badly as they expected. "We suddenly realized how resilient the president was," McKinnon said. "We took the toughest hit possible, and yet we found ourselves in June still beating Kerry."

During this period, Kerry himself expressed concern that his campaign message lacked spark. He called Paul Begala, the consultant who had helped steer Bill Clinton to victory and now cohosted the CNN show "Crossfire."

Didn't stay on message
"Kerry said, 'We need to get more focused,' " Begala recalled, "and I remember telling him the campaign was all over the map, no coherent rationale for him and [for] rejecting Bush. He agreed and said, 'I really need you to come aboard.' "   Continued...

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