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SCOT LEHIGH

Who's in charge of the Kerry campaign?

JOHN KERRY has recently drafted some top Democratic talent into his campaign -- and it's about time. John Sasso, one of the party's best strategic thinkers, has joined the nominee on the plane, and there has been an infusion of former Clinton aides and advisers into the headquarters.

That's the good news for Democrats. But here's the bad news. Right now, well-placed sources say, it's not completely clear who is in charge.

"It is fairly chaotic over there," says one Democratic source. "Nobody has total control, and that is very dangerous."

Not so, insists Sasso. "Whatever the outcome of this campaign, Mary Beth Cahill rescued the campaign in the fall, she led it successfully through the primaries, and she remains fully and steadily in charge as we head into the showdown finale," he says.

Others, however, paint a somewhat different picture.

With the addition of Clintonistas Joe Lockhart, Joel Johnson, and Doug Sosnik -- and greater anticipated participation by consultants James Carville and Paul Begala and pollster Stanley Greenberg -- they describe a series of competing camps.

There's the old infrastructure of former Ted Kennedy staffers Cahill and Stephanie Cutter plus consultants Bob Shrum, Tad Devine, and Mike Donilon; there are the new Clinton recruits; and there are Kerry's longtime Boston advisers.

The current plan, they say, appears to be to avoid talk of any sort of campaign shake-up by quietly divvying up some important functions among the new recruits. But there's a problem there.

"You can't win a race like this by committee," says one Democrat observing the campaign closely.

During his two decades as a senator, Kerry has never been particularly good at building an effective, well-integrated, high-performing staff. But he needs to do that now. During the last month the Kerry campaign's effort was decidedly subpar. The message has been muddled, the strategic thinking murky, and the press office sluggish.

Nothing better demonstrated the inadequacies than the Kerry team's tardiness in responding to the mendacious mugging it took at the hands of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. "This was a case of political malpractice," laments one national Democratic strategist. Indeed, his team's laggardly response is said to have exasperated the candidate himself.

Now trailing a bouncing George W. Bush, candidate and campaign will have to do better. What Bush and the Republicans did effectively, if disingenuously, at the GOP convention was present the Iraq war as an essential part of the war on terror. And according to a new CNN/USA Today poll, the incumbent now leads the challenger by 27 points on the crucial question of who would do a better job in the war on terror.

After reaffirming his vote for force last month, Kerry is now trying to sharpen his differences with Bush on Iraq by calling it the "wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time." To sustain that argument, however, the senator will have to go beyond the process arguments he favors to substance itself.

Kerry is also faced with the twin tasks of demonstrating that he is strong enough to keep the country safe from terrorism even as he tries to shift the political debate to issues where he clearly does better than Bush.

According to The New York Times, on Saturday former President Bill Clinton counseled Kerry that his campaign needed to talk less about Vietnam and more about contrasts on health care and job creation. Demonstrating the difference that a change in presidents would mean for middle-class voters is just the way Clinton won in 1992.

It shouldn't really take a former president to sound that warning. Still, the fact remains that Kerry's is a campaign without a signature issue. Or, some Democratic observers fret, any compelling message that extends beyond Kerry's wartime biography.

Why? Well, one reason may be that Kerry has always been more comfortable focusing on what he's against than running on what he is for.

But to prevail in this race, the Democratic nominee will have to do more than simply make the case that George W. Bush has been a bad president.

Now, despite some Democratic panic, Kerry is no more on the ropes in early September 2004 than he was in September 2003, when predictions of doom shadowed his announcement tour.

The polls should tighten. And the candidate will have his chance in the debates. Yet this much appears clear: Rather than run a campaign that waits for George W. Bush to lose, the Democratic nominee must go out and win this race on his own merits.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com. 

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