For Kerry, a lag that mobilizes

With the enlistment of Clinton aides, Kerry aims for a homestretch surge.

John Kerry is right where he wants to be, Democrats ruefully joke: behind in the polls and remaking his campaign team.

The Massachusetts senator, suddenly trailing President Bush in a presidential race that had been deadlocked for months, was in this position last winter, when he appeared doomed to lose the Democratic nomination to a red-hot Howard Dean. The Democratic nominee also scored an improbable comeback in his 1996 Senate reelection race against a popular former governor of Massachusetts, William Weld.

Now, at the traditional Labor Day start of the presidential campaign homestretch, Kerry must once again fight back from a deficit. And even though running for president is many degrees more difficult than competing for the Democratic nomination or running for the US Senate in Massachusetts, no one is counting him out. Even Republicans acknowledge Bush's lead - 11 points in Time and Newsweek polls taken during the GOP convention last week - will settle down.

Analysts also note that the eight weeks between now and election day represent many political lifetimes in a presidential race and that there will surely be more twists and turns in the story line. What's clear, though, is that the debates now gain in significance for Kerry, as the only head-to-head opportunity to take on Bush before election day.

Before that first matchup - Sept. 30, if Bush agrees to the first date designated by the presidential debate commission - Kerry needs to pound hard on domestic themes, especially the economy, and go after Bush's record, analysts say. Kerry and his team "don't have to rip up their theme and start over," says John Kenneth White, a political scientist at Catholic University in Washington. "But they do have to say what John Kennedy did in 1960: It's time to get the country moving again."

Nonpartisan analysts tend to think Kerry erred at his convention by focusing too much on his military biography and on making America stronger abroad, and not enough on the "stronger at home" areas where the Democrats have had an advantage - jobs, wages, healthcare, and education. The Bush team, in contrast, put together a convention that had something for everybody: the happy warrior, Rudolph Giuliani, the sunny "Why I'm a Republican" story of Arnold Schwarzenegger, red-meat attacks from a thundering Sen. Zell Miller (D) of Georgia, and a low-key Vice President Cheney.

Bush himself won largely positive reviews for a speech that mixed flashes of intensity when the subject was terrorism with self-deprecating humor when the subject was himself, and a State-of-the-Unionesque recitation of domestic proposals and goals that already had been largely unveiled.

But, in keeping with a race marked by warp-speed news cycles, that already feels like ancient history. By Labor Day, the political buzz centered on what Kerry would do to regain momentum.

The senator has brought longtime Massachusetts political adviser John Sasso to his side on the campaign plane as a senior adviser, and moved Michael Whouley, a key figure in Kerry's turnaround last January in the Iowa caucuses, into Mr. Sasso's old job, running election operations at the Democratic National Committee. Kerry has also added some former top Clinton advisers to his communications operation. Some familiar names - James Carville, Stanley Greenberg, and Paul Begala - will also be more prominent, as outside advisers.

In addition, Kerry was reported to have had two phone conversations with Bill Clinton over the weekend, before the former president's heart surgery Monday. According to published reports, Mr. Clinton urged Kerry to strike harder at Bush's record and to craft a more compelling argument for his own case for the presidency. Many Democrats have grumbled over Kerry's slow response on the charges against his Vietnam record leveled by the independent group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth; while his campaign reacted immediately, Kerry himself waited two weeks to respond personally.

The Kerry team also did not take much advantage of some recent, rare moments when Bush went off-message, such as his comment in a "Today Show" interview that the war on terror could not be won. Even though Kerry's campaign had pledged to conserve cash for the homestretch, and therefore put up minimal advertising during August, Kerry himself can still always earn his way onto the airwaves and cable by saying something newsworthy.

Democratic strategist David Axelrod agrees that Kerry needs to sharpen his message. "The biggest problem he's had in the last month is that he hasn't controlled the dialogue," says Mr. Axelrod, who is based in Chicago. "He has to blast this thing back onto the issues that work well for him and for Democrats, and which touch on people's lives, like jobs and healthcare."

Kerry can also try to capitalize on Iraq, where Americans continue to die almost daily, but he has less room for maneuvering there. A month ago, Kerry responded to a challenge from Bush and affirmed that he still would have authorized the war, even if he had known in advance that no weapons of mass destruction would be found. If Kerry were to change his position on Iraq, he would play into the Republican mantra that he's a flip-flopper.

"How can you focus on Iraq when you've had four or five different positions?" says Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia. "He's got to focus on the economy. It's a powerful issue, though it has become a little less powerful. Things are clearly improving."

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