Drag Race

By Jon Keller | Boston Magazine |

No one was better qualified to administer the last rites to John Kerry's presidential hopes than Dan Payne. The affable Payne, a respected Democratic political consultant from Newton who was an adviser to all three of Kerry's U.S. Senate campaigns dating back to 1984, knew firsthand of Kerry's long-standing penchant for running sloppy, lackluster races that turned easily winnable campaigns into cliffhangers. And late last year, as the Howard Dean bandwagon roared into Iowa, it appeared to Payne that the cash-strapped, chronically unappealing Kerry organization was flatlining beyond resuscitation.
“Democratic campaign for president may have been decided this week,” Payne wrote in a mid-December column for the website MassInsider.com. He gave Dean a 75 percent chance of winning the nomination, cast Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt as the only candidate who might stop him, and dismissed Kerry as an “also-ran” with a measly 3 percent shot at recovery. “We hardly knew ye,” Payne wrote of Kerry.
So it was with considerable surprise bordering on shock that Payne watched over the next month as the Kerry corpse lurched out of its coffin and tromped all over the competition en route to the most miraculous political comeback in presidential primary history. “I thought he was dead meat,” Payne recalls now.
He had plenty of company. The Kerry campaign's 2003 death march convinced almost the entire political punditocracy (your faithful correspondent included) that he was headed for extinction. His stunning Iowa victory not only demolished the assumptions of the peanut gallery, but also generated unstoppable momentum. Kerry rolled to victory in New Hampshire a week later and went on to clinch the nomination by early March, losing only three states along the way. Contrary to the belief–fostered by Dean's earlier remarkable ascension–that the Democratic race would be an outpouring of antiwar angst, Iowa voters made it clear that their top priority was choosing the candidate best equipped to oust George W. Bush and that Kerry, with his heroic war record and central-casting looks, filled the bill. Democrats in the rest of the country quickly seconded the motion.
First-blush assessments of how the transformation happened have created a heroic legend of sorts, an early draft of The Making of the President 2004. It's the saga of, as Kerry himself put it in his Iowa victory speech, “the comeback Kerry,” the inspirational tale of a battle-hardened vet who in his darkest hour tapped into inner resources of courage and leadership and finally showed the voters the right stuff within. “The people in Iowa and New Hampshire began to know him,” gushed Senator Ted Kennedy. “Kerry's hitting a nerve out there,” added Worcester Congressman Jim McGovern. “He got in touch with his soul and let it rip.”
It makes a great story, one Kerry can be expected to dredge up again if and when doubts about him re-emerge during the coming struggle with Bush. But is it more myth than truth?
No doubt, Kerry's Iowa comeback would not have been possible absent the will and energy of the candidate himself. Without Kerry's decisions to pour personal financial resources into his campaign fund, take the potentially campaign-ending risk of betting all his chips on Iowa, endure embarrassment by scrapping his hand-picked campaign brain trust, and set aside his ego to obey the orders of the operatives who came to his rescue at the eleventh hour, there would have been no hometown coronation set for the FleetCenter on July 29. No matter how clever their handlers, empty suits rarely make it this far in high-stakes political circles. And from Vietnam buddies to windsurfing companions, there are plenty of people who can attest to the legitimacy of Kerry's nerve under fire.
But the real story of the Kerry campaign's escape from death row is more complex–and less flattering to the candidate–then the instant-analysis hagiography would have it. From an exhaustive review of primary-season postmortems and exclusive interviews with experienced Kerry observers, including key allies who were on the ground with him in Iowa, comes the portrait of a candidate forced by desperation to grudgingly abandon a legacy of indecisiveness and self-delusion, and a campaign that relied for its resurrection more on unglamorous grunt work, traditional political trench warfare, and sheer luck than on any profound transformation by the candidate himself. A saga, in short, of a man who, rather than carving out his own path to salvation, had to be led down it.
On one point, the professionals who know John Kerry best are in agreement: His political career is like the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray's character keeps reliving the same day over and over again. “He always starts as a favorite, falters, has a near-death experience, then puts on the blinders, focuses, and comes out swinging,” explains a veteran of past Kerry campaigns. “The difference is, few people thought it could be done in a presidential primary.” This phenomenon, spun by Kerry apologists as a sign of when-the-going-gets-tough-the-tough-get-going machismo, is also subject to a less-flattering interpretation. “He's a guy who doesn't really start to pay attention until he thinks he may be in danger of dying,” says Payne, who identifies classic early Kerry campaign symptoms: “Delays, inattention to details, sloppy staff work, not having a tight message. He'll allow this to just go on and on until someone hands him a poll and says, 'You'd better get it together.'”
By all accounts, that turning point in Kerry's presidential groundhog day should have come in late July of 2003–amid a rising tide of favorable Dean buzz, fundraising, and poll numbers–at a campaign strategy meeting at Teresa Heinz Kerry's Nantucket home. For the first time, experienced Boston-based political aides who had been effectively banished from the campaign by Kerry's handpicked manager, Washington insider Jim Jordan, were on hand for a major strategy session, and they were appalled by the disarray and panic they saw. “Kerry was yelling at Jordan repeatedly, and Jordan was clearly unprepared to go forward,” recalls one insider. “I figured it was a matter of days before he would be gone.”
In fact, it took Kerry more than four months to dump Jordan, described by some as a publicity hound with little presidential campaign experience, who had proven unable to counter Dean's surge or discipline his own candidate. A top campaign aide blames this delay on Kerry's personal loyalty to Jordan, a longtime Beltway ally, but also notes, “They tinkered with adding people on, moving people around, all sorts of tentative shit, because Kerry didn't want the negative press from [a full-scale shakeup].” A former Kerry aide who came back from the private sector to help the campaign in New Hampshire saw familiar Kerry habits at play. When things go wrong, “the first thing he does is blame other people,” says the aide.
By early November, his candidacy still moribund, Kerry “was scared enough to listen,” says this former aide, and one of the few figures in his political universe with the stature to command his attention stepped in.
Senator Ted Kennedy had been dismayed by Kerry's meltdown, complaining to reporters in a rare public criticism that Kerry was “a compulsive telephoner. He talks to everybody, sometimes particularly if the campaign is not going well. Getting a lot of advice can be distracting.” Enter Kennedy's Senate chief of staff, Mary Beth Cahill, a veteran political operative from Framingham known for terse, focused campaign management that typically begins with a symbolically thorough cleaning out of her office wastebasket. Cahill quickly emptied the trash from the Kerry campaign, streamlining the operation and, like a strict boarding-school headmistress laying down the law to a spoiled new charge, curtailing the candidate's obsessive micromanagement. “I would shock you,” Kerry admitted to a reporter after Cahill took charge, “by how rarely I am in touch with or involved in details.” Cahill also imported political pros from the vast Kennedy bullpen and brought back into play the Boston operatives who had helped resurrect Kerry in the past–people like legendary field organizer Michael Whouley, strategist John Marttila, and pollster Tom Kiley. “Everyone came in to save him,” says one member of this rescue squad. “And he was ready to be saved. He had to hit rock bottom.”
Barely a month later, the decision was made to take what had been a New Hampshire-focused campaign and bet everything on Iowa. One veteran organizer sent to Iowa by Cahill found the trappings of hope there: a solid ground organization, a roster of elected-official support outstripping that of any other campaign, and favorability ratings for Kerry so good that the organizer says he didn't want the candidate to see them for fear “he might get too cocky again.” As the final month of the Iowa campaign unfolded, another indispensable element of the Kerry comeback came into play: luck. Dean began making his now-infamous series of blunders: the intemperate comment about how the widely celebrated capture of Saddam Hussein hadn't made America safer, peevish public bursts of temper, and ad-libs that fueled voter doubts about his electability. (From the make-your-own-luck file: An “independent” group with ties to both the Kerry and Gephardt campaigns also stoked the fire with a TV ad using an image of Osama bin Laden to question Dean's ability to “compete with Bush on foreign policy.”) Dean and Gephardt blundered by engaging in the sort of nasty TV-ad war that Iowans traditionally abhor. Kerry “didn't do great in the debates, but he didn't do that badly, either,” says a top adviser who played a key role in Iowa. “There was always something happening with somebody else to take the heat off.” And when Massachusetts Democratic Party Chairman Phil Johnston arrived in Iowa in early January to help Kerry, he found to his surprise that “the Dean strength was illusory. It was media hype.” Dean operatives, claims Johnston, had been fabricating lists of Internet supporters and touting them to the press. And the influx of thousands of out-of-state Dean volunteers created an overkill effect in the field that crippled their candidate. “They would call and call and call and then knock on doors,” reports Johnston. “They drove the voters of Iowa crazy.”
Meanwhile, Kerry was spending the money to pay for an organization that put him in position in Iowa to become the default choice. Under the guidance of the Boston pros and an expert Iowa team headed by state director John Norris, the Kerry campaign was focused as never before, buttressing its message by building a team of local precinct captains that was the envy of the competition on caucus night, allocating resources based on sophisticated statistical research techniques, and for the first time in the campaign, staging effective events like Kerry's emotional reunion with a Vietnam vet whose life he had saved during the war. While much has been made of the candidate's improved presentation down the stretch in Iowa, with fewer mind-numbing senatorial orations and more listening to voters, there was less to that than met the eye. “Once we got him into this mode of taking questions at his events, he was so tightly scheduled and falling behind so badly, he was afraid to give long answers,” one top Kerry handler explains.
Thus was forged a historic comeback. And now the hopes of Democrats and Bush-haters everywhere ride on a key question: Which John Kerry will we get between now and November? The indecisive, clueless loser of 2003 or the disciplined, engaged winner of early 2004? In part, the answer will rest on whether Kerry can now convince voters he is truly ready to lead. Perhaps he will. But Kerry can't use his primary-season resurrection as evidence. That happened, in the words of an insider, only because “he was ready to be led.”