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Dems Say Kerry Back On Track

By David Paul Kuhn, Chief Political Writer

Despite turmoil in the John Kerry campaign, key Democrats believe Kerry is back on-message and poised to overtake President Bush by Election Day. Following two weeks of Kerry campaign reorganization, optimism flourishes among party insiders. Democrats favor this increasingly combative Kerry.

Veteran Democratic strategists agree that John Kerry had a poor August, was off message and allowed President Bush to drive the momentum of the campaign. That's ending, in party veterans' views.

While the cohesiveness of the Democratic campaign remains in question, Kerry's turnaround does not among many party insiders. They believe the Kerry campaign has sufficiently restructured and is now on track.

Insiders say that in the past week, Kerry has been his best: clear spoken and fervent in driving home a difference between he and the incumbent.

It's where former Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean wanted Kerry the past year. "He's really needs to take it to the president," the onetime Democratic front-runner said. Kerry overtook Dean in January; Dean believes Kerry will do the same with the president.

"The idea of taking it right to the president" is what Dean said he likes about the Kerry of late. "The president is a very cheerful, charming person who is not very truthful," Dean continued. "The only way to burst through that is to take it on."

In a speech Wednesday to the Detroit Economic Club, Kerry did just that. The Democratic nominee slammed Mr. Bush's first term as "the excuse presidency." Kerry chided Bush as belligerent, "never wrong, never responsible, never to blame."

It was vintage September Kerry, abandoning an earlier theme of optimism for blunt attacks on the Bush presidency.

"It's called accountability; this president must be held accountable," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who ran a failed Democratic challenge against Kerry in the primaries.

"The president has to be engaged in a straightforward manner," Kucinich continued. "I think [Kerry's] beginning to do it. I think the campaign will start to slowly generate momentum."

Indications are the Kerry comeback may already be underway, according to at least one poll.

Polling by the Pew Research Center from September 8-10 showed President Bush ahead of Kerry by 12 points among registered voters. In a second poll, done September 11-14, the race was a dead heat -- President Bush and John Kerry each with 46 percent of the vote.

With less than two weeks until the first presidential debate, the contest is far from decided. After expressing frustration following the month of August, Democrats are confident Kerry has gotten back on track.

"They made some mistakes," said James Carville, a CNN commentator and former Clinton strategist. "I think they recognized the mistakes. And I think they are working to correct them, and that's good."

Renowned for his hardball political play in the Democratic Party, Carville said, "Running for president is tough, being president is tough. This is just a tough business."

And in Carville's eyes, as with other Democratic strategists, the Kerry campaign has gotten tough since Labor Day weekend. Some say this is the ebb and flow of elections. But the credit in large part has gone to the recent addition of three former staff members of President Clinton to the Kerry campaign.

On Tuesday, former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry joined the Kerry camp. Prior to McCurry, Clinton's onetime legislative strategist Joel Johnson joined along with Joe Lockhart, who like McCurry is also a former Clinton press secretary.

"The hallmark of the Clinton campaign in 1992 was instantaneous response, never let your opponent write on your blank slate," said Steve Grossman, who co-chaired Kerry's 1996 Senate campaign and was chairman of the Democratic National Committee during Mr. Clinton's presidency.

"Clearly they will be aggressive," Grossman said of the Clintonistas.

Yet a Kerry comeback is "inevitable," Grossman said. "Post-Republican convention, post-Labor Day, political candidates tend to play their best ball."

"I believe John Kerry is the Reggie Jackson of American Politics," he continued. "The Mr. October label that was prescribed to Reggie Jackson is a perfect way to describe John Kerry."

But as with others, Grossman also credits the Clinton veterans' ability to play hardball politics.

"[Mr. Clinton's former staff members] are obviously very experienced in crisis management and damage control," said a longtime Democratic insider, who spoke on the condition on anonymity because of his involvement in the current presidential race.

"They are masters of the counter punch and the preemptive punch," he continued. "They understand how to move a sizable bureaucratic operation. They understand rhythmically how the press works. They're very, very experienced."

And he added, "Clearly the last week has been lots, lots better."

Dean's former campaign manager, Joe Trippi, has long called on Kerry to take President Bush on directly. He's contented that "clearly they've been much more aggressive" recently.

"They really coasted through most of 2003," he continued. "It wasn't until they were almost dead that they woke up and started fighting."

Trippi points out that it was the current team under Mary Beth Cahill, the campaign manager, which made that comeback. "No one's better," Trippi said of Kerry's ability to rally.

"I don't know if it's that [the campaign must be behind]," he continued, "or whether it is the fact that they really have brought in two or three folks who have hone their street fighting skills during the Clinton presidency, when they had to face it everyday."

Either way, Democratic strategists like Trippi believe Kerry is coming back. After a hard August where anti-Kerry advertising by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth went unanswered and the Republican Convention lifted President Bush, Kerry's summer lead evaporated.

Following the convention, President Bush gained a four-to-seven point lead over Kerry, depending on the poll. The most recent Pew poll, released today, is the first tangible indication of what has become a pervasive optimism retaking the Democratic Party: this election remains winnable.

"Karl Rove is doing what he has to do," Kucinich said. "What he has to do is protect President Bush from being accountable for anything and the way to do that is to relentlessly attack Kerry."

President Bush said Kerry was an ardent liberal outside the mainstream. The Bush campaign coined Kerry a "flip-flopper" on key issues. Day after day, the president and vice president repeated these themes on the stump.

Concurrently, the Bush campaign has also consistently been on-message about the incumbent. President Bush's portrayal: strong and decisive leader who makes hard choices in hard times. Polls show, Kerry failed to counter.

"But you know what, the games over. Now the debate is going to center on whether the American people are any better off or any safer than they were four years ago," Kucinich insisted. "I think that we've seen is a temporary lull that's now about to come to end and it will result in this one of the most powerful finishes for a candidate in a modern election. You watch Kerry catch on."