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Senator taps Sasso, confers with Clinton

PITTSBURGH -- Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry yesterday tapped a Massachusetts friend and adviser of 22 years, John Sasso, to be the person at his side through Election Day who assesses the candidate's performance, delivers bad news, and sharpens the day-to-day political message that has been criticized as lackluster by some Democrats recently.

Kerry asked Sasso -- best known as campaign manager for Michael S. Dukakis's failed presidential bid in 1988 -- to begin traveling with him full time and become his on-site political counselor, campaign aides said. In a phone conversation between the two men, Kerry acknowledged that his own campaign performance has lacked the precision and clarity that he feels is necessary to beat President Bush, aides added. Campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, who worked with Sasso on Al Gore's 2000 operation in Michigan, also asked Sasso to act as her point person on Kerry's plane, starting today, while she runs headquarters in Washington.

"The candidate told Sasso that he wants to put the choice this November before the American people in very clear, simple language, that he feels that hasn't been happening," a senior adviser to Kerry said yesterday. "When all is said and done, if we feel we've put the choice between Kerry and Bush before people and they know the options, they may not vote for Kerry, but we've done all we can do. The candidate hasn't felt that's been happening nearly as much as it needs to."

Sasso declined to comment last night.

Also yesterday, the Kerry campaign called for an investigation into allegations by US Senator Bob Graham that the Bush administration blocked a probe into financial ties between the government of Saudi Arabia and two of the hijackers in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. In his book "Intelligence Matters," due to be released tomorrow, the Florida Democrat and former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee wrote that the White House stopped the congressional investigation, a move that indicates "an attempted coverup by the Bush administration," as quoted by The Miami Herald, which obtained a copy of the book.

Graham also said that General Tommy Franks told him four months after the invasion of Afghanistan that military resources already were being shifted to prepare for war with Iraq.

"These are serious allegations being made by a well-respected and informed leader," Kerry said in a statement. "We need an independent investigation into these allegations immediately to determine if the very agencies charged with investigating the war on terror have been compromised by White House politics."

With 57 days left until the Nov. 2 election, Kerry, Cahill, senior advisers Robert Shrum and Joe Lockhart, and the rest of Kerry's inner circle conferred with one another in a bustle of strategy meetings and by phone yesterday as the candidate spent the day cloistered at his wife's estate nearby, trying to address the shortcomings he and others have identified. Aides said Kerry was less concerned about two news magazine polls this weekend, each showing Bush with an 11-point lead, than with ensuring that his team is sharpening campaign speeches and advertising to contrast Kerry and Bush and highlight the president's "failed promises" on issues from jobs to health care to Iraq.

In a related move, longtime Kerry political strategist Michael Whouley will assume Sasso's duties at the Democratic National Committee. Kerry credited Whouley for playing a "magical" role in his come-from-behind victory in the Iowa caucuses last January.

Campaign officials were quick to insist that the move was not the kind of shake-up that has been rumored by some Democrats critical of Kerry. Cahill remains campaign manager, and no one has been fired or lost a title. Sasso will be a senior adviser, unpaid by choice, as he had been as Kerry's aide at the committee since mid-April. The appointment of Sasso, 57, is significant for highlighting some longstanding deficits within the Kerry organization, outside political veterans said.

Kerry has never had a senior political counselor or a peer traveling full time to advise and critique him, and to ensure he reacts swiftly to new Republican attacks. Cahill and Shrum each travel with Kerry a few days a month, as well as, on occassion, Kerry's brother, Cameron, and former brother-in-law David Thorne.

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

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