Kerry retools campaign, reshapes the 2004 race

After his victory in Iowa, questions shift to others

Election 2004

On To New Hampshire

January 21, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MANCHESTER, N.H. - By that Sunday in November, when he huddled with advisers in his Boston townhouse, John Kerry's high-flying candidacy had plunged to earth. Money was drying up, and Howard Dean was relentlessly grinding Kerry into the rocky soil of next-door New Hampshire.

With his presidential dream looking nightmarish, the Massachusetts senator shook up his staff, retooled his message, dug deeply into his personal wealth and launched a last-ditch try to turn his campaign around.

That effort to "change the dynamics" of his candidacy, as Kerry put it then, has radically altered the shape of the 2004 presidential race. "Comeback Kerry" landed here yesterday, the surprise winner of the Iowa caucuses and the man best positioned to become the new Democratic front-runner in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary.

Kerry's triumph in America's heartland is propelling him into the lead in New Hampshire polling. But he faces challenges that will test his ability to sustain that momentum.

For example, New Hampshire is the only state where his cash-strapped organization is airing commercials now. Several of his rivals, including Dean, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, are on the air elsewhere, in addition to New Hampshire.

Kerry has loaned his campaign $6.4 million, by mortgaging his house on Louisburg Square in the Beacon Hill section of Boston. His wife, heiress Teresa Heinz Kerry, whose fortune has been estimated at $500 million, is an active member of his campaign but federal campaign finance law prohibits him from tapping her wealth.

His decision to opt out of the federal matching funds system allowed Kerry to ignore the state spending limits that the other candidates, except Dean who also opted out, must follow. That enabled Kerry to blanket Iowa with television and radio ads, though extensive news coverage of his surging poll numbers might have been a more important factor.

One change Kerry advisers say they are expecting after his victory in Iowa is that he will face more intense attacks from Democratic opponents in New Hampshire, where politics is a rougher game.

By the time his candidacy began taking off three weeks ago, Kerry had managed to put the contentious split within his campaign staff behind him.

The internal fighting reached a low point around the time he formally kicked off his campaign in September, when the warring factions famously produced different versions of his announcement speech. Soon after, his communications director, Chris Lehane, now a senior member of the Clark campaign, left the Kerry camp, reportedly because he felt the senator was overly cautious in responding to Dean's rise.

In mid-November, Kerry fired his campaign manager and hired Mary Beth Cahill, a Democratic veteran. Cahill is a former chief of staff to Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who campaigned with Kerry on the final two weekends in Iowa in spite of a history of cool relations between them.

With just a week left until the New Hampshire primary, Kerry is attempting to rekindle the support that deserted him in the state after months of intensive campaign activity. His campaign is hoping that his Iowa rebound will lead voters here, where he is well-known, to give Kerry a second look - or, in some cases, a third or fourth.

Questions for rivals

Of course, most of his rivals would be happy to be in his position. Several suddenly find themselves facing new questions here. They include:

Can Clark, the biggest mystery of the Democratic race, capitalize on Dean's fall? In recent weeks, he's made steady progress here and could gain support if anti-war voters abandon Dean.

But Clark has largely had this state to himself while the major contenders battled in Iowa. His voter appeal remains untested, as does the novice candidate's ability to cope with the heightened scrutiny he'll probably get now from opponents and the news media.

Can Edwards' campaign organization catch up with the man who became the hottest candidate at the end of the Iowa campaign, when his crowds were larger and more enthusiastic than anyone's?

The North Carolina senator is counting on neighboring South Carolina to be his breakthrough state, a week from Tuesday, but he is not as well established elsewhere. His strong finish in Iowa could give him a lift in New Hampshire, which has often been kind to newcomers who score a big caucus surprise.

By far the biggest questions revolve around Dean, who in some ways is the mirror image of Edwards. In recent months, Dean's organization has outperformed its candidate, who has reacted poorly in recent days to adversity, including the first defeat of his political career on Monday.

A standard yardstick of presidential politics is that the candidate raising the most money in the year before the election becomes the nominee. Dean broke the fund-raising record last year.

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