NEW YORK – Pundits and politicos on both sides of the party aisle agree that August was a rough month for John Kerry's (search) presidential campaign, but observers say nothing is fishy about the camp's recent personnel changes.
"People always try to come in at the end ... they will always come in to help you in the last three months" of a campaign, said Democratic strategist and FOX News contributor Susan Estrich.
"It's normal for a campaign that's behind," added Chuck Todd, editor-in-chief of National Journal's The Hotline. "There's always this last-minute … group of aides that try to help things."
Other politicos, however, say taking on big names like Mike McCurry (search) and Joe Lockhart (search) with less than seven weeks until Election Day not only is an effort to close the gap in the polls between the Massachusetts senator and President Bush, but a sign that the challenger's message may be off.
Kerry is trailing Bush in national presidential polls and in surveys of many key battleground states. On Wednesday, the campaign decided to pull planned ad buys in four states where it no longer felt Kerry was competitive.
"It's clear objectively that the Kerry campaign in August has gone through tremendous internal debate along with the senator about the direction of the campaign," said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs (search) at Franklin and Marshall College.
"You don't change people at the top level, bring someone to travel with you as your voice to the press if everything's going well … it's like all of a sudden you're batting one thousand and you say, 'ok, we're going to change the team.'"
Many recent hires by the Kerry camp were prominent figures in the Clinton administration. McCurry served as Clinton's press secretary from 1995 to 1998. Lockhart, who replaced McCurry in 1998 after serving as his deputy, was the public face of the White House until October 2000, and helped the former president weather the storm of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment.
Joel Johnson, also in Kerry's corner now, served as Clinton's senior adviser for policy and communications and promoted the White House's legislative and policy goals. He previously served as staff director for the Senate Democratic Leadership under then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Doug Sosnik was a top political adviser to Clinton for nearly the entire term of the Arkansas-born commander-in-chief. It's the job of John Sasso, who oversaw Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential campaign, to keep Kerry on message.
Estrich said former members of the Clinton camp, however, may be trampling on Kerry's message.
"Rule No. 1 of the staff people is, don't step on the candidate's message … by the end of last week, what was happening, they were taking so much credit — some of the Clintonistas — to how much help they were giving the campaign," Estrich said.
Estrich said some of her contacts within the Kerry campaign told her that "even Kerry himself was getting a little bit angry by the end of last week saying, 'OK, guys, I'm the candidate here and I don't want these staff changes stepping on the message.'"
But Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill (search) has described the entry of professional strategists and message-makers another way.
"Everybody wants to help us win," Cahill has said.
Other big-name Clinton Democrats now on the Kerry-Edwards team include informal, unpaid advisers Paul Begala and James Carville as well as myriad others.
But Bob Shrum may be the most influential adviser. Shrum has helped about one-third of U.S. Senate get elected but is 0 for 7 in getting U.S. presidents elected.
Mark Leibovich, a political reporter for The Washington Post, noted that Kerry has personal history with Shrum, who helped the Massachusetts senator get re-elected in 1996 against a popular Republican governor. Shrum has a particular knack for speech writing and debate preparation, the reporter noted.
"It was a good move when they were way ahead in the polls and it was good news when they were walking toward the Democratic nomination" to hire Shrum, Leibovich said. "There's been some damage on the campaign, a lot of people have lost their jobs in the past few months — whether Shrum had anything to do with that or not … ultimately, people are only going to remember if Kerry wins or not."
In the other corner, President Bush (search) has had little to no movement within his re-election campaign. Some say that's because his senior political adviser, Karl Rove (search), keeps a tight rein over Bush loyalists. Other say it's because the president has seasoned veterans who have been with him from day one and maintain a high degree of confidence in their boss.
"They had their own baptism under fire in 2000" with the ballot recount, Madonna said. "Bush is in the White House and therefore, the president has a lot of confidence in the people around him … the way they speak about the president and their interaction, this is obviously a very close relationship that's not easily shaken because you have a little downtick in the polls or your campaign gets off message."
Some have suggested that the changing of the guard is a sign that Kerry hasn't been happy with the advice he's been receiving on how to deal with the Vietnam military records brouhaha, which has caught the presidential campaign by storm.
While Republicans gleefully claim the Kerry campaign is in disarray, "the real truth probably lies somewhere in between — that this is a campaign that's gone through some consternation and some tribulations but at the present, they're not hemorrhaging in the polls," Madonna said. "It's still a very close election."
But no matter what the reason, some strategists say taking on so many new faces so close to Election Day may be rocking the boat.
"It's like being in a canoe and you're bringing in another two or three people," said GOP strategist Rich Galen. "The canoe gets really tippy for awhile so it's just going to cause more problems."