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Kerry Takes Flight

All positive, all the time--except for Fritz Hollings.

9:15 AM, Jan 24, 2004 • By DAVID TELL
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Manchester, New Hampshire

ONE OF THE REASONS Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt both fared so poorly in the Iowa caucuses, everybody seems to agree, is that voters in that state--who are, I can confirm, the nicest people in the universe--were turned off by the relentlessly bitter campaign each man ran against the other, especially at the end. Dean's closing-week anti-Gephardt attack ad, in particular, is thought to have blown up in his face, not least because no Iowan with a television could escape it: $240,000 worth of air time over just three days, a truly phenomenal amount of money in a state where a typical heavy-rotation broadcast purchase might be only half as much money spread over twice as many evenings.

So in New Hampshire, "negativity" is out, at least for public consumption. Which is rather inconvenient for Dean, since it's an iron law of campaign strategy that a man in his suddenly desperate position has to--among other things--"take down" the frontrunner just a bit. Or more than just a bit. How's Dean supposed to do that without the voters noticing? Beats me, and beats Dean, too, apparently: All the Dean people have so far managed to come up with is a not-particularly-imaginative program of "oppo" press-release dumps to reporters (about John Kerry's purportedly grubby, career-long relationships with "special interests" and their Washington-lobby henchmen). And reporters aren't biting.

During Thursday night's St. Anselm College debate in the Goffstown suburbs west of here, the very first piece of paper distributed throughout the press filing center by the handout kids was a Dean campaign document headlined "John Kerry, Fighting Special Interests?" That headline had a little number "1" after it. Over the course of the evening, we also got parts 2, 3, and 4, each of them a little sub-thematic scrapbook of quoted old clippings about Kerry's past campaign fundraising techniques. If a single newspaper has since run a single story based on this stuff, I haven't seen it.

The Kerry people, by contrast, aren't saying anything about Howard Dean--I mean nothing--even on paper. This, too, is an iron law of campaign strategy, and Kerry's strategists are iron-law men all the way. In the post-debate spin room Thursday night, Bill Shaheen, the senator's New Hampshire campaign manager, was repeatedly asked to "diagnose the state of Dr. Dean's campaign." And he repeatedly refused: "No, that's up to the people to do that, I have my own--I have enough of my own--listen, I'm running the Kerry campaign, that's more than I can handle." Shaheen is an engaging, funny guy, an old-school pro, and you can tease him about stuff like this, so I did: I expect you Kerry folks never think about Howard Dean hardly at all, right? Shaheen laughed: "I think about it all of the time," sure. But that didn't mean he was prepared to think about it out loud. "I can't diagnose it, I'm not qualified for that."

A few minutes later, having just been pushed backwards into his wheelchair by the crowd, I made my apologies to former Senator and Kerry surrogate Max Cleland, and then further embarrassed myself--that being my job--by segueing straight into horserace vulgarity. At one point during the debate, Dean had made allusion to the 500-some-odd U.S. servicemen and women who've lost their lives in Iraq, noting that "those soldiers were sent there by the vote of Senator Lieberman and Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards." Gov. Dean appeared to be suggesting that Cleland's friend John Kerry had blood on his hands. What did Cleland make of that?

"No, that's not correct," he told me. What really happened was . . . well, it had something to do with President Bush's "insane" Middle East policies and "oil wells" and "Cheney getting income from Halliburton." Okay, but what about Howard Dean suggesting that John Kerry had sent American GIs to their deaths for no good reason, I wondered? Was Cleland irked by that? "I disagree with it. I don't think it's true. Excuse me," the honorable gentleman cordially replied, rolling himself away.

This was the same Max Cleland whose view it was not long ago that "We cannot afford to have a leader who weaseled out of going to Vietnam on a medical deferment for a bad back and wound up on the ski slopes of Aspen like Howard Dean."