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Kerry camp plans for hard road ahead

Advisers strategize to boost his 'likability'

With about six weeks until Election Day, advisers to Senator John F. Kerry say they believe they have turned a corner after a month on the defensive: Their campaign is reorganized and refocused, their political message is raising doubts about President Bush's choices on Iraq and jobs, a battle plan is now in place, and the candidate is on the attack, they say.

This morning, Kerry will give a major speech on Iraq in New York, seeking to drive the debate a day before Bush addresses the United Nations.

Yet behind the Democratic presidential nominee's public confidence of victory in November, his advisers harbor concerns that not enough voters are comfortable with Kerry personally or enthusiastic about his ideas, a critical mass they long felt the senator needed to achieve by now to knock off an incumbent president.

"I think we have stabilized the situation where John was falling behind Bush, and now we are playing offense," said a senior campaign adviser in Kerry's inner circle, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Last week was stronger than the week before, and this week will be even better. But this is not where we hoped to be.

"Is it too late? I don't think so. But no one wanted to be asking that question in September," the senior adviser said.

Among Kerry's top lieutenants and closest friends, the mood is less pessimistic than clear-eyed that the race will come down to a series of factors over which the senator has varying degrees of control: how crisply Kerry draws distinctions between himself and Bush; how adroitly the two perform in the debates; how energetically the media, especially Democratic editorial pages, come out to endorse Kerry; and how likable Kerry comes off to voters, given his goal of casting Bush's leadership in negative terms while appealing to Americans as an optimistic, unifying leader.

"All campaigns find their own rhythms, but the Bush campaign did a very good job at their convention of trying to take Kerry down, and I'm impressed with the way Kerry had come back and fought back and is now starting to reframe some of the debate in a much sharper way," said Michael McCurry, a press secretary in the Clinton White House who joined Kerry's campaign as a senior adviser Thursday.

"Now we've got to maximize every day to make voters feel their best about John Kerry," McCurry added.

Kerry aides refer to their battle plan as "wrong choices," the strategy being to critique Bush's leadership decisions and sow doubts about four more years of them, in much the same way that Bill Clinton's aides in 1992 focused with an attack plan they dubbed "It's the economy, stupid."

Kerry now refers to Iraq as "the president's most catastrophic choice," and with today's speech at New York University he plans to continue hammering "the failure of Bush's policy in Iraq and his lack of credibility as a world leader," Kerry communications strategist Joe Lockhart said yesterday. In a coordinated attack, the Democratic National Committee will hold a news conference this morning in Washington where mothers of US soldiers in Iraq will describe how "they are very upset by Iraq today" and are "sick and tired of George W. Bush," Terry McAuliffe DNC chairman, said yesterday.

Kerry's campaign is also running a new commercial on Iraq, in 13 battleground states starting today, in which the candidate says health care and education have been shortchanged "because George Bush chose to go it alone" to oust Saddam Hussein. "As president, I'll stop at nothing to get the terrorists before they get us. But I'll also fight to build a stronger middle class," Kerry says in the ad.

Kerry's goal, advisers say, is to turn the debate away from his own views about going to war in Iraq -- which the Bush campaign has relentlessly mocked as shifting with the political winds -- and focus on the administration's inability to stop the insurgency and US casualties there. Kerry plans to play off concerns about postwar mistakes in Iraq that were raised on yesterday's morning political shows by Republican Senators John McCain, Chuck Hagel, and Richard G. Lugar, the latter saying on ABC that the administration's "incompetence" is slowing the use of US funds earmarked for security and reconstruction in Iraq.

"The Republicans have been skillful in making this about John Kerry's position on Iraq rather than President Bush's performance, even as they are mounting a Lyndon Johnson-like deception of how the war is going," said Richard Holbrooke, a Kerry adviser on national security and a former Clinton UN ambassador, in an interview yesterday. "It is imperative, and Senator Kerry knows this, that the American electorate is aware of these failures."

Kerry's attack strategy over Iraq -- that the president has concealed the truth about the gravity of the security problems and the likelihood that the situation will grow worse -- was developed the past two weeks in meetings of his reconfigured staff in Washington and on his campaign plane. Lockhart and McCurry said the campaign's complement of new and old advisers has begun to jell in spite of recent backbiting among some leading Democrats that the operation is not running smoothly.

After attacks last month on Kerry's service record by a group of Vietnam veterans, which Kerry and his advisers delayed responding to at first, the senator recruited Lockhart, McCurry, and other old Clinton hands he had been trying to bring on board the campaign for months. The group joined other former Clinton White House aides such as Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager, and Stephanie Cutter, the communications director -- both of whom were from Massachusetts and had worked for Senator Edward M. Kennedy, but who cut their teeth in presidential politics working for Clinton. Kerry also added Massachusetts political strategist John Sasso to his campaign plane; Sasso has emerged as Cahill's equivalent by Kerry's side, while the campaign manager oversees work at Washington headquarters.

"There is a very talented group of people around the table -- but it's a group," McCurry said. "They need a couple of people who can take on 'first-among-equal' status, and that has happened, with Mary Beth, Sasso, and Lockhart.

"Every argument I hear in the campaign is about the pros and cons of execution, not the fundamentals of what we're doing," McCurry said.

"I'm feeling more and more encouraged," added Rand Beers, Kerry's chief national security adviser. "Three weeks ago, it was really important to stay focused on the way ahead, and not get bogged down in the things and problems at hand."

This week, Kerry will also take steps to address what advisers call "the likability factor" -- trying to raise voters' comfort level with Kerry on a personal level. A Pew Research Center poll released Thursday suggested that Bush edged out Kerry when voters were asked which man was "down to earth," "honest and truthful," and "willing to take a stand, even if unpopular." Asked who was the stronger leader, voters favored Bush by a margin of 57 percent to 30 percent.

Kerry will appear on the "Late Show with David Letterman" tonight and "Live with Regis and Kelly" tomorrow, and this weekend taped a segment of the daytime show "Dr. Phil" that will air early next month. But the greatest opportunity to up the likability quotient will probably come in the debates, advisers said. Kerry plans to seclude himself with aides next weekend at his wife's home near Pittsburgh to prepare for the first debate, tentatively scheduled in Miami on Sept. 30.

"We have to reach a comfort level with the American people -- they have to view John with a certain level of respect, an appreciation of his own strength, values, and character, a feeling that they can trust this person for the next four years," said the senior adviser in Kerry's inner circle. "I don't know how you do all that. It's an evolving process. But we need to do it quickly."

Patrick Healy can be reached at phealy@globe.com.

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