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SCOT LEHIGH

The two minds of John Kerry

SO LET'S SEE. Just two weeks after John Kerry issued a statement saying that no campaign shakeup loomed, the assurance that all is fine is now apparently, ah, inoperative. Chris Lehane, Kerry's communications director, has now jumped ship, said to be frustrated that Kerry sat on his hands while Howard Dean soared by him.

And last week, Kerry distanced himself from the controversy-dousing declaration that he planned no changes in his team.

"Those weren't precisely my words," he told the Globe's Michael Kranish. "They were the words of a press release sent out."

Apparently only utterances from the candidate himself can be taken at face value. Of course, when it's the senator himself speaking, the sentiments can be awfully hard to decipher. Last Tuesday, during the Democratic debate in Baltimore, Kerry was asked about his vote to authorize the use of force (or "to threaten the use of force," as Kerry has tried to characterize it) against Iraq. Replied the candidate: "If we hadn't voted the way we voted, we would not have been able to have a chance of going to the United Nations and stopping the president, in effect, who already had the votes and who was obviously asking serious questions about whether or not the Congress was going to be there to enforce the effort to create a threat."

To call that answer incoherent is to pay it a fulsome compliment. Kerry, a close friend of John McCain, must know that voters want someone authentic, direct, genuine. Can he honestly imagine he is within a country mile of meeting that standard?

With Lehane gone, there's now some talk that Kerry may install someone to supersede campaign manager Jim Jordan.

Given the candidate's recent performance, here's a better idea: The campaign should find someone to supersede John Kerry.

Oh, not forever. Just until the candidate decides who he is. And what he stands for.

Maybe Teresa Heinz could do it. She is more real and far less programmed than her husband. Or perhaps Tom Vallely, Kerry's old friend and fellow Vietnam War vet, could stand in as a surrogate for a few weeks. Vallely, after all, was once a state rep, which means his political instincts may well be sharper than Kerry's these days.

Now, as I've argued before, the senator's plight is hardly as dire as the death spiral sometimes portrayed. Two new polls show him narrowly leading the Democratic race nationally. And a new Boston Globe survey in New Hampshire reveals that the 21 point lead that Dean supposedly held over Kerry there is really a more manageable 12 point margin.

So Kerry is still positioned to bounce back. But to do so, he will have to improve. Dramatically.

His problem? Seeking an office he has coveted all his life, Kerry still can't decide how he wants to run. His campaign is a study in duplication: Two media consultants, two pollsters, two inner circles. Which, in one sense, is perfect for a candidate often of two minds. The various duplicates can line up and debate their competing approaches -- and Kerry can take it all in, head pivoting back and forth like a poodle at a Ping-Pong match.

Now, Kerry is still capable of the big moment. As those who watched him in his epic 1996 battle with William Weld know, when his back is against the wall, Kerry can reach deep, find his core, and fight his way to daylight.

But waiting for the impressive Kerry to appear is getting to be a little like waiting for Godot. Meanwhile, Wesley Clark, the former NATO supreme allied commander, has reportedly decided to enter the race, trumping Kerry's military credentials -- and thereby eroding some of his rationale.

If he's to regain his footing, the senator will have to decide what he really wants to say about Iraq. Was his vote the right one to confront a dangerous tyrant, as he has sometimes said? Was he misled by faulty intelligence, as he has suggested at other times? Was it, therefore, a mistake? It can't be both.

And he must decide when, and how, he will take on Dean.

At a time when Kerry needs to be at his very best, his campaign looks undisciplined, divided, and adrift. But there's an axiom in presidential politics that's as true as it is old: Problems in the campaign usually reflect inadequacies in the candidate.

The basic problem here? John Kerry.

The only one who can solve it? John Kerry.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com. Join Lehigh today for a live online chat at noon on www.boston.com.

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