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Kerry’s future draws on past

As he prepares for the most ambitious and defining phase of his presidential candidacy, Sen. John F. Kerry  is relying on image-makers schooled in traditional Kennedy liberalism to sell himself anew to voters as a 21st-century centrist Democrat, a muscular hawk on national defense and deficits.
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As he prepares for the most ambitious and defining phase of his presidential candidacy, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) is relying on image-makers schooled in traditional Kennedy liberalism to sell himself anew to voters as a 21st-century centrist Democrat, a muscular hawk on national defense and deficits.

Bob Shrum, longtime confidant of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), is emerging as the most influential shaper of Kerry's image and words. Shrum, a purveyor of populism who has a reputation for angling for control of campaigns and sometimes alienating colleagues in the process, helped elbow out Kerry's campaign manager last year and is putting a distinctly populist us-against-them stamp on the candidate's more mainstream "new Democrat" message.

Shrum's power is rivaled by only a select few, including his business partner Michael Donilon, described by three Kerry insiders as the smartest, though stealthy, daily strategist, and Boston-based pollster Tom Kiley, the campaign's pulse-taker and calming presence. Kiley is part of small, though influential, band of Bostonians who have watched Kerry's back since his first run for Congress in 1972. Most are veterans of Kennedy's campaigns as well.

It is Shrum's word and Kiley's polling data and Donilon's ads shaping a soon-to-be-released media campaign introducing Kerry to voters in battleground states. But it is Mary Beth Cahill, campaign manager and another longtime adviser to Kennedy, calling the final shots and overseeing the fast-growing operation.

Their lofty mission: to set aside a long-running feud within the Democratic Party over its direction to position Kerry as the presidential candidate who is pro-national defense, pro-middle-class tax cuts, pro-balanced budgets — with the rhetorical dash and inspiration of John F. Kennedy, a hero to Kerry and many of his top aides.

For instance, Kerry and his advisers seek to blend a traditional populist rant against big corporations with policies designed, in part, to placate business — such as his across-the-board tax break for corporations.

Although most of Kerry's top aides were trained to fight for a bigger, more activist government, they are evolving with the candidate and the party. "The best people, the best thinkers, generally adapt with a change in circumstance," Cahill said.

Kiley, the campaign's pollster, says the trick is to synchronize with the rhythms of this candidate. "It's less the moment in my mind, and more the candidate," he said.

'Times have changed'
Cahill said Kerry has great flexibility in repositioning the party because liberals are more concerned about winning the White House than the ideological war. "Times have changed," she said. Kerry plans to target swing voters, the small percentage of Americans not bound to one political party.

The essence of the upcoming campaign message, Donilon said, is biographical: Kerry has "demonstrated great strength and really sound judgment in very tough situations, and he's done that all his life. That's the key to his life story," he said. The campaign will spend millions of dollars promoting this message, several aides said.

Cahill's ability to unite the competing, though so far generally amiable, factions inside the campaign — centrist-minded Clintonites such as Roger C. Altman running the policy shop, populists shaping the message, Bostonians who know Kerry best — will go a long away in determining whether the presumptive Democratic nominee can successfully sell himself as a new kind of Democrat in the months ahead, Democrats inside and outside the campaign said.

Kerry has a reputation of relying heavily, some say too heavily, on advice of strategists, pollsters, and close advisers and friends to guide his campaigns. Some Democrats worry Kerry will fall into the same traps Al Gore did in 2000 and think and strategize himself into political paralysis and ambiguity, or allow staff rivalries to foment and fester. In 2003, Kerry's campaign was beset with staff infighting and turf wars, sometimes involving Shrum, leading to the firing and resignation of several advisers — and the hiring of Cahill.

Cahill's tasks include blocking Shrum or anyone else from the type of empire building and infighting that helped doom Gore and many presidential hopefuls before him.

"I don't have any fear of my ability to . . . get our strategic team working together and in the same direction," Cahill said in an interview.

Shrum said, "The person who runs this campaign is Mary Beth Cahill."

Kennedy ties
Cahill, an Irish Catholic from Dorchester, Mass., is credited with turning the campaign around after last year's firing of campaign manager Jim Jordan. Cahill, more manager than political mastermind, is close to Shrum and Kennedy and signs off on every major decision made by the campaign. She hosts a 7:30 a.m. conference call with about a dozen advisers to set the tone for each day and often referees disputes with party leaders outside of the campaign. She is more Kennedy than Kerry, so it remains to be seen how her clout will evolve in tough times, several aides said.

Some Democrats worry that Kennedy ties could prove disastrous in swing states, but the liberal senator is a powerful influence, personally on the campaign trail firing up the base and through aides such as Cahill, who seek his advice on issues and how to improve Kerry on the stump.

Another Kennedy veteran, Stephanie Cutter, a 35-year-old Cahill protege, is Kerry's answer to Bush communications director Dan Bartlett. Cutter will oversee a staff of more than 60 and play a prominent role in shaping the campaign's daily message.

Cahill said six people equally dominate campaign strategizing sessions: Shrum, Donilon and their partner, Tad Devine, as well as pollsters Kiley and Mark Mellman and herself. Others privately said the true powerhouses are Cahill, Donilon and Shrum — and not necessarily in that order. It was Donilon who devised last year's "100 days" campaign, which outlined how Kerry would change the country during his first three months in office and who advocated this new, biographical ad campaign. Donilon is helping produce the ads and recently traveled to New York to determine whether a new Madison Avenue ad firm should be added to the campaign mix.

Yet many Democrats believe the campaign could rise or fall on the performance of Shrum, one of the most lauded and loathed strategists in Democratic politics. Every Kerry adviser interviewed for this article said Shrum and the others are making a smooth transition into their new roles, with little infighting. They described Shrum as one of five or six big decision makers. But, because modern campaigns are often won on television and through easily digestible sound bites and slogans, Shrum's influence and ideas are on constant display.

To his admirers, including Kerry, Shrum is a modern-day Shakespeare. "He's the best Democratic speechwriter of the last quarter-century," said Bruce Reed, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

Shrum's most famous work — the "dream shall never die" speech delivered by Edward Kennedy to the 1980 Democratic convention — is considered one of the most significant speeches of modern political history.

Shrum is credited with rescuing Kerry's 1996 reelection by preparing the senator for his successful debate performances against Gov. William F. Weld (R). Shrum is tight personally with Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry. His influence includes grand planning, writing and reviewing speeches to debate, "Meet the Press" prep and opining on the vice presidential pick, campaign officials say. Shrum is a friend of James Johnson, who is heading Kerry's search for a running mate. Every speech is run through the firm co-owned by Shrum, Donilon and Devine. Only Cahill spends more time talking to Kerry, said a longtime Kerry adviser.

Internal scuffle
"There is no question that the person who has the most influence on what comes out of John Kerry's mouth on any given day . . . is Bob Shrum," said another Kerry adviser, who demanded anonymity to discuss the campaign's internal workings. Shrum's influence permeates Kerry's every speech, from his rant against special interests to his spirited appeal for more participation among younger Americans.

After winning an internal scuffle with recently departed ad man Jim Margolis, Shrum and his firm are producing all of Kerry's television ads, too, and positioned to net millions of dollars from the campaign.

To his many detractors, though, Shrum is a greedy megalomaniac, a master of winning the confidence and trust of his boss, but often a destructive force inside political campaigns. In the 2000 campaign, Shrum clashed with several colleagues, including Tony Coelho, the campaign chairman, over money and direction of the campaign. Shrum pushed hard for the campaign to spend its money on advertising, which he received a cut of, instead of ground troops in battleground states such as Tennessee, several veterans of that campaign said.

Shrum has a "natural tendency to put his items on the table," said Donna Brazile, Gore's campaign manager in 2000. "Bob tries to impact strategy, and when implementation comes, if it ain't happening, he will take it over. He's a fighter, a tenacious fighter."

Democrats talk of a "Shrum curse," a reference to the four straight losses for the presidential candidates he advised. But it is not the losses that seem to bother former colleagues most. Several Democrats who have worked with Shrum complained that he creates a toxic atmosphere inside campaigns by dividing staff and angling for big chunks power and ad revenue.

"Shrum has real talent; it's just a question of whether not he gets too much control over strategy and the candidate," said Coelho, who in 2000 sometimes clashed with Shrum. Kerry aides insist he will not.

Several Kerry hires, including former New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen, sought assurances Shrum would not hold too much sway over the operation before signing on, according to two people close to the campaign. Another Democrat close to the campaign said Shrum is assuming a lower public profile, in part to dispel the notion that he is in charge.

Staff writer Paul Farhi contributed to this report.