Kerry Enlisting Clinton Aides in Effort to Refocus Campaign
By ADAM NAGOURNEY and DAVID M. HALBFINGER
Former President Bill Clinton, in a 90-minute telephone conversation from his hospital room, offered John Kerry detailed advice on Saturday night on how to reinvigorate his candidacy, as Mr. Kerry enlisted more Clinton advisers to help shape his strategy and message for the remainder of the campaign.
In an expansive conversation, Mr. Clinton, who is awaiting heart surgery, told Mr. Kerry that he should move away from talking about Vietnam, which had been the central theme of his candidacy, and focus instead on drawing contrasts with President Bush on job creation and health care policies, officials with knowledge of the conversation said.
The conversation and the recruitment of old Clinton hands came amid rising concern among Democrats about the state of Mr. Kerry's campaign and criticism that he had been too slow to respond to attacks on his military record or to engage Mr. Bush on domestic policy. Among the better-known former Clinton aides who are expected to play an increasingly prominent role are James Carville, Paul Begala and Stanley Greenberg, campaign aides said.
Mr. Kerry's aides emphasized that this was an expansion of the staff for the fall campaign and did not represent another upheaval of the Kerry campaign. Still, several Democrats outside the campaign said the influence of Mr. Clinton and his advisers could be seen over the past few days in Mr. Kerry's attacks on Mr. Bush's domestic policies. They said the Clinton team had been pressing Mr. Kerry to turn up the intensity of his attacks on those policies after a month spent largely avoiding engaging the president.
The installation of former Clinton lieutenants is creating two distinct camps at Mr. Kerry's campaign headquarters on McPherson Square in downtown Washington.
The first is the existing Kerry high command, which includes Mary Beth Cahill, the campaign manager; Bob Shrum, a senior adviser; Tad Devine, a senior adviser; and Stephanie Cutter, the communications director. The second is the Clinton camp, which includes Joe Lockhart, a former White House press secretary; Joel Johnson, a former senior White House aide; and Doug Sosnik, a former Clinton political director. And Howard Wolfson, a former chief of staff to Hillary Rodham Clinton, joined the campaign yesterday.
Members of both camps played down any suggestion of a Clinton takeover of a troubled campaign and insisted there was no tension between the two groups. Still, these days, Mr. Lockhart is stationed in an office on one side of the campaign war room; Mr. Shrum's office is on the opposite side.
On Saturday, Mr. Johnson drew applause from Democrats assembled for a weekly strategy meeting at Mr. Kerry's headquarters when he reassured aides that the campaign had settled on a clear line of attack against Mr. Bush, people at the meeting said. They said Mr. Johnson told the group that the campaign wanted the entire party to heed the new talking points.
"It's very simple," Mr. Johnson said in an interview yesterday, describing what he said would be the template for Mr. Kerry's speeches and advertisements in the weeks ahead. "It's: 'Bush has taken us in the wrong direction. If you want more of the same for the next four years, vote for President Bush. If you want a new direction, John Kerry and John Edwards.' It's not complicated. Failed policies, jobs and the economy, health care."
Officials with knowledge of the Clinton conversation said it came after Mr. Kerry called Mr. Clinton at Columbia-Presbyterian Center of New York Presbyterian Hospital on Friday to wish him well. Mr. Clinton, who was described by advisers as concerned by the direction of the Kerry campaign, thanked him and suggested that the two men talk over the weekend about the campaign, which they did Saturday night.
The telephone conversation, which was described as detailed and expansive, with Mr. Kerry doing more listening than talking, also included Mr. Lockhart, who joined Mr. Kerry's campaign as a senior adviser about two weeks ago. Mr. Lockhart declined to comment on the conversation.
People close to Mr. Kerry said he was receptive to the counsel and was moving to widen his circle of advisers in the face of mounting concern among prominent Democrats about the potency of Mr. Bush's campaign. They noted that Mr. Clinton and his strategists were architects of the only winning Democratic presidential drives since 1976. Even so, some of Mr. Kerry's aides insisted that their seeking help from Mr. Clinton was not a reflection of flaws in their campaign.
Mr. Kerry's aides insisted that the Clinton advisers were augmenting the staff as it headed into a difficult period, and did not represent another instance in which Mr. Kerry was shaking up his campaign staff. Mr. Kerry fired a campaign manager in the primary season. The Kerry aides said that senior advisers, among them Ms. Cahill and Mr. Shrum, remained in their posts.
Still, some Democrats described what was taking place as a slow-motion shake-up as Mr. Clinton's former advisers assume increasingly powerful roles.
Mr. Greenberg, who was Mr. Clinton's pollster in 1992, resigned Tuesday as the pollster for independent Democratic groups that have been running advertisements attacking Mr. Bush so that he would be permitted, under the law, to play a more prominent role in advising Mr. Kerry's campaign.
Mr. Kerry's aides said that a longtime political adviser from Boston, John Sasso, who is working as general manager of the Democratic National Committee, would start traveling with Mr. Kerry as a full-time aide.
Mr. Sasso is said to have history with Mr. Kerry and his respect, enough to be able to give the candidate unvarnished criticism on his performance on the trail.
Mr. Begala, who said he would remain a CNN commentator, said he was delighted with the changes. He added that Mr. Bush had succeeded over the past month in transforming the race from a referendum on an incumbent president to a referendum on Mr. Kerry.
"It was an enormous shift," Mr. Begala said last night. Then, referring to Karl Rove, a top Bush strategist, he added: "And it required the cooperation of the candidate. And you know what? The Kerry campaign is no longer cooperating. Sorry, Karl."
Mr. Clinton's engagement in the campaign is new but hardly surprising. Throughout the 2004 campaign, Mr. Clinton has offered advice to any Democratic presidential candidate who would listen, including Mr. Kerry. And he told Mr. Kerry's advisers before his hospitalization that he would play a major role campaigning for Mr. Kerry this fall. In 2000, Mr. Clinton made no secret of his dismay that his vice president, Al Gore, did not turn to him more for counsel and campaigning help.
The Kerry campaign has become roiled in recent days by criticism - from inside and outside - of its decision to initially resist responding to the attacks on Mr. Kerry's war record by a group of veterans. Members of the Clinton camp as well as some of Mr. Kerry's aides were said to have believed that the slow response hurt Mr. Kerry and contributed to polls in recent days suggesting that he had slipped behind Mr. Bush.
"We talked about this last year, the fact that Republicans would come after his service and the idea that they would come after what he did when he got home," said one midlevel Kerry adviser who is not part of the Clinton camp. "The idea that we got caught flat-footed is just crazy."
Mr. Shrum, in an interview yesterday, called such second-guessing "ridiculous," saying, "We responded within six or seven days.
"I was strongly in favor of responding to the Swift boats when we did or around when we did, and so was Mary Beth," Mr. Shrum said, referring to Ms. Cahill and the advertisements by the Vietnam veterans critical of Mr. Kerry.
While Mr. Kerry's crewmates denounced the advertisements as soon as they were released Aug. 4, Mr. Kerry himself did not address the accusations until Aug. 19.
The notion that the campaign was settling on a new message for the fall came as news to some senior staff members.
"That's really groundbreaking," one senior aide said sarcastically when told about the focus on Mr. Bush's policies outlined by Mr. Johnson. "I think our negative frame should be that George Bush is a liar. He misled the country on Iraq. And then everything else that he lies about, bring it back to that."
Mr. Devine said any lack of clarity of Mr. Kerry's message was due to the campaign's running few advertisements in the past five weeks. He said the polls are showing a downturn they always planned for.
"If you want to deliver a powerful message, you need all the means of message-delivery at your disposal," Mr. Devine said. "Absent those tools and those means it's just harder to deliver that kind of message."
Jodi Wilgoren contributed reporting for this article.