WHEN ONE concerned politico recently asked John Kerry how he would jump-start his flagging presidential campaign, the Massachusetts senator gave this reply: He would finish second in both Iowa and New Hampshire and then beat front-running Howard Dean as the primary campaign progressed south and west.
What? Right now, there's little reason to think Kerry is headed for second in Iowa, where US Representative Dick Gephardt leads and Dean runs a strong number two.
But here is the bigger issue: Could Kerry really survive a second-place finish in next-door New Hampshire?
"You are the political analyst," says Jeanne Shaheen, the campaign's national chairwoman. "You can speculate on that."
But you were the governor of New Hampshire. Responds Shaheen: "And I have learned not to speculate in my years as governor."
All right, then, let's shoulder that burden: Anything other than a victory or a photo finish in New Hampshire seems likely to render Kerry a political zombie.
But here is the irony that underlies Kerry's dramatic shake-up of his campaign staff: Having fiddled while the dynamic turned, Kerry has now fired the very strategist who tried hardest to spur him into earlier action to protect his foothold in the Granite State.
As long ago as last spring, campaign manager Jim Jordan and Chris Lehane, then Kerry's communications director, counseled Kerry that he had to confront Dean directly. Both saw a potential for the former Vermont governor to threaten Kerry in New Hampshire.
Jordan, knowledgeable sources say, argued that if Kerry didn't engage Dean when the senator was strong, he could find himself trying to claw his way back into the fight in the fall from a position of weakness.
That advice turned out to be prophetic: Witness Kerry's current plight.
But it was counsel that Kerry repeatedly ignored -- even when the perfect opportunity presented itself. Just days before the televised debate on May 3 in South Carolina, Dean had been quoted questioning Kerry's courage. On the night of the debate, the campaign had positioned David Alston, a member of Kerry's Vietnam War swift boat crew, prominently in the audience. The plan was for Kerry to point out his fellow veteran, recount the dangers they had faced together, and deliver to Dean this sort of attention-getting rebuke: Please tell David Alston that the people who served on our swift boat didn't have courage.
But Kerry never seized the moment. And that failure became a metaphor for the long season of campaign discontent. As Dean outflanked him, Kerry listened to advisers who told him that Dean was not a threat or that he could be handled later.
Jordan tried again at the time of Kerry's Sept. 2-3 announcement tour. The original speech, which he and Lehane shaped, highlighted issues like the death penalty and gun control, where Kerry held more liberal or consistent positions and where Dean's stands could be portrayed as driven by political expediency.
But when Bob Shrum, Kerry's media consultant, got a copy of that speech over the Labor Day weekend, he hustled north from the seashore. Arriving at the senator's Louisburg Square mansion late at night, the consultant, according to several sources, worked with Kerry into the wee hours crafting a different address.
Sluggish as the Charles River in a hot August, the resulting speech left the candidate without a sharp message on his announcement tour.
Now, it's true that Jordan had his faults. He didn't always listen well. And in trying to impose order on an entourage of the sort seldom encountered outside of, say, the old riddle about traveling to St. Ives, he froze out some talented people.
But make no mistake: Jordan was the scapegoat, not the problem. The larger ills that beset this campaign start and stop at the same place: With the candidate. Kerry is a difficult boss, one whose penchant for public equivocation reflects a private indecision so pronounced that crucial decisions are always being revisited. He is also prone to wishing away painful realities. And to blaming others for his own failures. (Ah, those presidential qualities.)
Which is precisely what he did with Jordan. "It's the old baseball story: You can't fire the players so you fire the manager," says Democratic consultant Dan Payne, a former Kerry adviser.
So now Kerry has a new campaign chief, and good luck to her.
But for all Mary Beth Cahill's managerial talents, it's important for the candidate to realize that this campaign's real problems are inner conflicts that only he himself can ever truly resolve.
Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is email@example.com.