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Jewish World Review Sept. 14, 2004 / 28 Elul, 5764

Roger Simon

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A new Kerry campaign? | The guns of August did their work on John F. Kerry. Whatever good will and political advantage he had obtained from his convention in Boston — and that was slender enough — it was shredded by a withering attack on his Vietnam record and Kerry's own glacial pace in defending himself.

Which put the leaders of the Democratic Party in a cold fury. The Democratic National Committee had spent a record $36 million on television ads in August, and some now considered that a wasted effort. Big Democratic donors were howling that Kerry was blowing the chance of a lifetime and well before the Republican Convention, which placed Kerry even further in the hole, Bill Clinton was on the phone with Kerry and telling him his campaign needed to be "stronger".

Fingers were pointed in several directions, but grumpy staff members, who bore the brunt of the blame, pointed out that the candidate was not helping. A few weeks before the Republican Convention, I asked a senior Kerry aide where Kerry would spend that week. "I don't know where he will be, but I know where he won't be," the aide replied. "He will not be on Nantucket."

The staff got it. Pictures of Kerry windsurfing around an island playground for the wealthy were not helpful. So what happens? Kerry goes to Nantucket, goes windsurfing, and, as if to rub it in, puts on a pair of only-a-rich-guy-would-dare-wear-these shorts for the photographers.

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And if the Democrats were waiting for Bush to falter at his convention, they were badly disappointed. It was a nearly flawless four-day extravaganza and virtually every major speech had the same theme: Vote for George Bush — or die.

While Kerry's convention looked relentlessly backward to Vietnam, Bush's convention looked insistently ahead to a dangerous world that only Bush, the official line went, could protect us from.

And if anyone needed reminding of that following the convention, Dick Cheney provided it with his statement that if Kerry was elected "the danger is that we'll get hit again" by terrorists.

But now it was September and a new Kerry campaign was in place. A number of former Clinton aides had been brought on board and as one told me, "This campaign needs to be more urgent, more aggressive and more in your face." The new people also pointed out that after eight years of working in the Clinton White House, "rapid response" was stamped on their DNA.

So John Edwards immediately denounced Cheney's statement as "un-American," and when media accounts surfaced that Bush may not have fulfilled all his military obligations during his stint in the Air National Guard, TV-star and Kerry backer James Carville was unleashed to say: "I think the lesson here is President Bush is probably a man of limited personal courage."

The candidate, himself, also seemed a little more emphatic and more willing to focus his speeches on just one or two topics (instead of 16) and present a presidential, if not exactly warm and likeable face, to the public.

But is it all too late? "Our biggest problem in August was that it was an opportunity lost," a top Kerry aide said. "So many things went wrong for Bush — bad poverty numbers, the economy, Iraq — and we did not hold him accountable. That was more damaging to us than the Swift Boat stuff."

But Kerry is known as being a good closer, a candidate who comes to life in the last weeks of the campaign to make up lost ground and win. Though his campaign is depending on more than just the candidate.

Senior aides feel they have a secret weapon: a below-the-radar screen staff of experts on organizing and getting out the vote. "While there is a lot of drama surrounding the media consultants and the press people, there are people with a ruthless efficiency on this campaign concentrating on the political, targeting and ground-game side," a Democratic strategist said.

Said Democratic Chairman Terry McAuliffe: "I think the second the Republican convention ended, it was a new campaign for us. There is a whole new level of intensity." Now if someone could just convince the candidate of that.

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