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In a shift of strategy, Kerry takes on Dean

During an early July weekend of Cape Cod kiteboarding and campaign strategizing, Senator John F. Kerry gathered a dozen of his top aides on the porch of his Nantucket home to debate a key question: Should they respond to Howard Dean's surprise early airing of television commercials in Iowa?

Kerry's advisers concluded that Dean was foolishly frittering away precious campaign cash at a time when few voters were paying attention. The Massachusetts senator waited until 10 days ago to launch a commercial counterattack, finally airing spots in New Hampshire and Iowa. The July decision wound up costing Kerry and helping Dean, as the former Vermont governor rose in the polls over the summer, followed his Iowa blitz with similar ads in New Hampshire in early August, appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek, and collected millions of Internet dollars. Dean also hinted that he might break the federal spending cap necessary to get public funds, posing even more of a threat to Kerry.

With the beginning of primary season just four months away, Kerry -- once considered the Democratic front-runner -- has faced woes extending beyond just advertising decisions and Dean's surge in popularity. The Massachusetts senator's message is criticized by some as muddled and by others as too oriented toward a general election against President Bush. Some liberal activists continue to question his vote to give President Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq, a matter that has dogged Kerry in his race against the antiwar Dean.

Now Kerry, who insisted earlier this month that he planned "no changes" in his staff, said he plans to add people to "plug holes" and is demonstrating a new willingness to challenge Dean. Significantly, when asked about a simmering dispute between his Washington and Massachusetts campaign staffs, he told the Globe he is working to "find a way for the people not there every day to weigh in more effectively. . . . We are making changes every day."

"What's important is someone was unarmed for a period of time," Kerry said, in a revealing comment referring to his lack of television ads, "and we're now there."

While the ads don't attack Dean, Kerry was especially tough on his opponent during an interview last week with the Globe.

`Somebody who wants to be president ought to keep their word," Kerry said. "I think somebody who wants to be president shouldn't run around the country breaking their policies on a daily basis, going backwards on foreign policy, backwards on Cuba, backwards on taxes, changing around, and now possibly on a campaign finance pledge. I think it goes to the core of whether you are a different politician or a politician of your word or what you are."

Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, asked to respond, said: "I'll just let it stand. He wants to say that, he can say that."

Despite the changes in Kerry's strategy, a series of potential bumps remain on the horizon. The prospect that retired General Wesley Clark might enter the race could hurt him by providing voters with an alternative Vietnam veteran candidate, a former NATO commander who also happens to have opposed the Iraq war. And later this month, fund-raising reports are expected to show that Dean has out-raised Kerry and other candidates significantly during the past quarter. Kerry said he expects Dean to raise twice as much as him, and once again challenged Dean to abide by his June pledge to stick to a spending limit.

Last week, as Kerry sat in his Washington headquarters alongside campaign manager Jim Jordan -- the man who has drawn the ire of some Boston-based aides --the senator insisted he had turned the corner, and he produced a ream of statistics and stories to back up his case. He said that his long-awaited television ads are having an impact, and that Dean's New Hampshire lead has been cut to what he considers a manageable 12 percentage points.

Kerry's staff complained that a CNN/Time poll at the beginning of the month, which showed Kerry leading nationally for the first time, received little press attention. A national poll released on Friday by Fox News also showed Kerry leading the pack with 17 percent, slightly ahead of Senator Joe Lieberman with 16 percent and Dean with 14 percent.

When Dean began airing commercials in Iowa in mid-June, his campaign noted that the candidate had low name recognition and less than half as much money as Kerry. That helps explain why Kerry's crew didn't feel an urgency to respond.

But around the time Kerry was meeting with his advisers in Nantucket, his pollsters conducted focus groups with two groups of 16 people each in Iowa. Not one person in either group knew Kerry was a veteran. A similar exercise in New Hampshire found that while one-third of the group knew Kerry was a veteran, none knew Kerry had been awarded three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star, a Kerry aide said.

Kerry's diagnosis of prostate cancer, for which he underwent surgery in February, was another unexpected setback. "It took a significant toll on him physically and therefore changed our scheduling to a real degree for several months," Jordan said, adding, "He is a strong and energetic man and he has bounced back completely."

Kerry also has been hurt by one of the most ironic twists of his career. He rose to prominence as a veteran who became the leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. But with Kerry having voted for the legislation that gave President Bush to go to war in Iraq, Kerry was now perceived by many Democrats as pro-war, while Dean claimed the antiwar banner.

Kerry's explanation of the war vote continues to concern even some of his oldest friends. During last week's Baltimore debate, Kerry said his vote for the resolution actually was an effort to stop the president.

"If we hadn't voted the way we voted, we would not have been able to have a chance of going to the United Nations and stopping the president, in effect, who already had the votes and who was obviously asking serious questions about whether or not the Congress was going to be there to enforce the effort to create a threat," Kerry said.

Among those who listened to this explanation with concern was one of Kerry's most loyal supporters, Jerome Grossman, a liberal icon in Massachusetts who has supported Kerry in every campaign since 1972.

"It is not at all clear what he means," Grossman said. For months, Grossman said, he has tried to sell Kerry to his many liberal friends, only to see a number of them slip away to Dean in part because of questions about the war vote. Grossman's nephew, former Democratic National Committee chairman Steve Grossman, became cochairman of the Dean campaign. All of this worries Jerome Grossman, whose autobiography is titled "Relentless Liberal."

"John Kerry can do a lot better," said Grossman, who stresses that he still backs Kerry. "I still think he is the intellectual and political class of the field. But he hasn't lived up to those appellations." Grossman proposes a radical solution for Kerry's campaign: admit the vote for the Iraq war was a mistake.

Kerry, asked about the perception that his explanation in Baltimore was muddled, responded: "Maybe I wasn't as articulate as I should have been. It wasn't the most brilliant answer I've given in my life in terms of clarity. But it is clear, I voted correctly in terms of how you protect the security of our country, in how you go to the United Nations to have a legitimate threat of force that is real because Saddam Hussein responds to nothing else."

While Kerry is eager to go after President Bush, he has sent mixed signals about how tough he wants to be in campaigning against Dean. In a telling moment, Kerry was asked on Aug. 31 on NBC-TV's "Meet The Press" about a statement by his campaign manager, Jordan, that "Howard Dean is a very crafty, very calculating politician." "I wish my campaign were not making characterizations of people publicly, and I don't like that," Kerry responded.

Kerry's comment helped ignite the mini-storm that followed, with some interpreting it as a signal to take aim at Jordan. Kerry furthered the controversy by saying he "reserved the right" to make staff changes. This prompted some of Jordan's loyalists to threaten to quit if Jordan was sacked or demoted, a senior aide said. Then, as reporters asked whether the campaign was in disarray on launch day, Kerry put out a statement saying there would be "no changes." The to-and-fro caused some top aides to cringe at how the campaign had violated the most basic rule of political campaigns, which is never to step on your own message.

Asked on Friday whether he stood by his statement that there would be "no changes," Kerry said he has "great confidence" in his team but then added a significant addendum: "Those weren't precisely my words. They were the words of the press release sent out." Kerry said he would add people to "plug holes," but declined to be more specific.

Now, after months of reluctance to go after Dean, Kerry seems ready to lead the assault. Using language that is considerably stronger than Jordan's "crafty and calculating" comment, Kerry suggested in the interview that Dean is breaking his word on a number of issues, from Dean's support of a trade embargo against Cuba to Dean's views on foreign policy issues such as Iraq. Most significantly, Kerry said Dean would be breaking his earlier pledge if he chooses to reject the spending cap.

While aides are pleased that Kerry has shed some of his reluctance to go after Dean, some are still concerned that his primary campaign theme -- "The courage to do what's right for America" -- is too vague.

At the same time, the Kerry campaign has been slow to harness the fund-raising and organizing power of the Internet, which has been one of Dean's strengths. Some aides enviously watched as the Dean campaign made headway by creating an Internet diary known as a "blog" that attracted a large following and online donors. Notably, a Kerry campaign intern named Emily Gouillart made her own unofficial blog, which she posted on the Internet. In one entry, Gouillart, who called herself the Kerry "mouse," wrote that she created the blog because "one of the only severe criticisms I have about my job is our unwillingness to make bold statements and use the Internet the way some of our opponents have." A week later, the Kerry campaign finally created an official blog, and Gouillart wrote in hers that "I myself have pushed for this at the office for months, and I'm pretty pleased that it's happened."

Last week, the Kerry campaign posted an official link to her blog and called her the "mouse that roars."

Kerry himself said that "I fingered the Internet early on as very important, but unfortunately some things moved too slowly and didn't get in place as fast I'd wanted it to."

Kerry's campaign relies heavily on biography, and his commercials reflect the campaign's strategy: relentlessly remind voters about Kerry's war and protest record. They open with scenes of Kerry as a Naval skipper in Vietnam, then cut to his leadership of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, noting that Kerry "came home and helped rally the nation against that war."

The Vietnam focus might seem dated, especially to voters too young to remember Vietnam, but Bob Kerrey, the former senator from Nebraska and Vietnam veteran who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination in 1992, said they are crucial. Kerrey recalls that he purposefully downplayed his biography, only to learn that many voters didn't know much about him.

Kerry, moreover, hopes voters see a link between Vietnam and Iraq. Kerry says Bush misled him about going to war only as a last resort, and it reminds him of why he got into politics in the first place.

"I'm running," Kerry said in his most passionate statement, "with the same fervor that I opposed the war in Vietnam."

Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com.

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