It's been a long time since John Kerry got anything resembling good news. In fact, for most of the winter Kerry has been fending off reporters determined to nail his coffin shut. But lo and behold, after several days of steadily climbing in Iowa polls, Kerry may now have a claim to first place there. That's a startling development. Sure, a Kerry win in Iowa hardly makes him the race's front-runner. But it might be his last, best hope for staying alive.
There are some obvious reasons for this Kerry comeback. One is the way he essentially gave up on winning New Hampshire and began campaigning constantly in Iowa, in the hope that a surprise finish would slingshot him into New Hampshire with fresh momentum. Another may be a sharpened stump style, and the well-advised dumping of contrived slogans like "The Real Deal."
But there might be another, more hidden story -- a secret weapon Kerry unleashed in Iowa several weeks ago. His name is Michael Whouley.
Michael who? Unless you're a hard-core political junkie, you've probably never even heard the name. But within the Democratic political world, Whouley is an almost-mythical figure. Revered as one of the party's fiercest and most talented ground-level organizers, Whouley is widely credited with saving Al Gore's foundering campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire in the 2000 primaries against Bill Bradley. Now this old Kerry ally may be working his magic one more time.
Whouley often seems like a kind of Keyser Soze figure -- his fearsome powers are the stuff of legend, but the man himself is rarely seen. Unlike other top campaign operatives, Whouley shuns attention. He avoids shows like "Hardball" and "Crossfire," and you can't find a picture of him on the Web. Whouley is so secretive that in 2000 he wouldn't even walk in front of a C-SPAN camera so his mother-in-law could see him on television. On the phone, Whouley sounds like a 300-pound truck driver -- he has a grumbly, profane voice, heavily inflected with the accent he acquired growing up in Boston's working-class Dorchester neighborhood. (In fact, he is short, "balding," and "whip thin," according to The New York Times.)
Whouley also hates to be written about. Gore's former campaign manager, Donna Brazile, confided to me yesterday that she'd just gotten off the phone with Whouley. He'd told her "to stop bragging about him" to reporters.
But Whouley's track record makes him hard to ignore. Numerous veterans of the 2000 Gore campaign, including Gore himself, give Whouley vast credit for saving Gore's hide from Bill Bradley's primary challenge that year. At the time, Whouley was a fortyish ground operative who had been field director for Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign and, briefly, patronage chief in the White House. He was first dispatched to New Hampshire after a poll showing Bradley with a lead in New Hampshire rocked the complacent Gore campaign. Whouley quickly identified the problem: Gore had been too regal and distant from the voters. He ended Gore's endless endorsement events and forced him to bang on more doors and make himself accessible through long town-hall meetings with undecided voters. They proved highly popular and crucially humanized the stiff vice president.
Having shored up Gore in New Hampshire, Whouley proceeded to Iowa, where Bradley was also gaining ground. Whouley called in several trusted old allies from around the country, many from Boston, and overhauled Gore's state operation. Once again, Whouley got results -- even if it meant bruising feelings. Press accounts describe an "icy fury" and killer stares shot at campaign workers who fail him. Brazile says she blanched when Whouley insisted that the man who'd been promised the prestigious job of managing California for Gore be sent to Western Iowa instead. But it was done. More efficient mail and phone operations helped Gore find his footing, and he blew out Bradley by 28 points.
Finally Whouley returned to New Hampshire for the homestretch in that state. He micromanaged Gore's voter turnout machine to the last possible hour -- even sending a last-minute throng of volunteers to pound on doors based on 4 p.m. primary exit poll data. In a rare moment of self-promotion following the primary, Whouley even bragged that he'd dispatched a convoy to create a traffic jam on I-93, designed to prevent upscale suburban Bradley voters from getting to the polls. (He later insisted this was a joke.) "He is so incredibly focused," Gore would later conclude to The Washington Post, that when Whouley sets a goal, "book it."
Lucky for Kerry, he had a longtime relationship with Whouley, dating back to Kerry's 1982 campaign for lieutenant governor. Kerry developed so much respect for Whouley that he actually cited him as a reason for not challenging Gore for the nomination in 2000. "I would not have enjoyed running against Whouley," Kerry told The Washington Post. "I definitely want him in my foxhole."
Now he's got him. True, Whouley's magic wasn't too evident for much of this year, as Kerry floundered. But in November, Kerry sent Whouley to Iowa, charged with whipping his state organization into shape. Soon after arriving, Whouley began to make his mark. As he did in 2000, Whouley again summoned several trusted old friends to help him (including Bostonians Paul Pezzella and Joe Ricca, both field operatives from Michael Dukakis's 1988 primary campaign). Last month, he boosted the Iowa staff's morale by solving a longstanding problem -- Kerry's Iowa direct-mail budget was bogged down in campaign bureaucracy -- with a single insistent phone call to Washington. And more recently, he introduced an impressive new weapon into Kerry's arsenal: a campaign helicopter (dubbed the "Kerry-Copter"), which one aide says has allowed Kerry to make up to three additional campaign stops per day.
Brazile says she's not surprised that Kerry's Iowa surge was preceded by Whouley's arrival there. After learning that Kerry had sent Whouley to Iowa, Brazile says she contacted top Gephardt and Dean campaign officials with a friendly warning: Watch out. "Whouley knows how to close," she told them. "He will kick the living daylights out of your campaign operation. I said, 'Let me tell you what Whouley is going to do. He is going to close. He's going to convert twos to ones.'" (A reference to the campaign practice of ranking possible supporters on a one to five scale.) "And when the undecideds start moving," she warned at the time, "he's going to convert them, too." That's just what's happened.
Of course, the real test of Whouley's powers isn't a Zogby poll. It will come on Monday, when he'll have to get Kerry's supporters to the caucuses. On the one hand, Whouley is a master of brute-force turnout tactics. But it may be that Kerry's rise was too little, too late even for this ground-game wizard. "Michael Whouley is a general without an army," says Gephardt campaign manager Steve Murphy. Kerry, Murphy says, simply does not have the sheer manpower to compete with the thousands of Dean and Gephardt volunteers who have poured into Iowa. Perhaps. But if Kerry -- a man left for dead by the side of New Hampshire's highways just a few weeks ago -- pulls out an astonishing showing in Iowa, you'll know that Michael Whouley has done it again.
Michael Crowley is an associate editor at TNR.
By Michael Crowley