NEW YORK – Military strategist Sun Tzu is credited with suggesting to keep one's friends close and one's enemies closer. But how close — or far away — does one keep political allies during an election year?
Both John Kerry and President Bush have party heavyweights going to bat for them as the race for the White House reaches fever pitch, but some analysts have wondered if Kerry's choice of allies is doing the candidate much good.
Kerry's had a wide range of support on the trail, from senior Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy to his former primary rivals — civil rights activist Al Sharpton, retired Gen. Wesley Clark and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean — to former Vice President Al Gore.
Bush's surrogates on the trail include former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (search) and New York Gov. George Pataki. They are helping to challenge Kerry's record and boost the president's. But aside from Vice President Cheney, whose remarks are frequently used against him, comments by Bush's surrogates don't seem to capture nearly the same attention as the words and actions of people like Gore and Dean.
Al Gore (search), for example, has broken his tradition of being a cautious campaigner and has chastised Cheney for "sleazy and despicable" criticism of the Democrats and said the Bush team's moral cowardice is of the "lowest sort of politics imaginable."
Gore has also said Bush "has brought deep dishonor to our country, the most dishonest president since Richard M. Nixon." He said Bush has "betrayed this country."
Other Kerry supporters also have bashed Bush on the trail.
"Why do people lie? Because they're liars. He lied in Florida. He's lied several times and I believe he lied in Iraq," Sharpton has said.
In March, Dean used a beanbag to knock down cutout images of Bush and Cheney. He also told FOX News at that time that he wouldn't heed Kerry's call to tone down the negativity during the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July.
"I think attacking the Bush record is a pretty good idea. What record? Lost a million jobs, sent out troops to Iraq without telling us why. I think there's a lot to attack," Dean said.
Late in that month, Dean suggested that Bush's decision to send troops to Iraq appears to have contributed to the train bombing in Spain that killed more than 200 people. Later, he issued a statement clarifying his remarks, saying nothing justifies terrorism and that he was simply repeating the connection made by an alleged Al Qaeda (search) spokesman who claimed responsibility.
Republicans called on Kerry to repudiate the remarks. The Massachusetts senator said he didn't share Dean's position.
Many political observers, even Democrats, say some of these sentiments may make the Kerry camp squeamish, and that's why the candidate's "friends" are sent to blue states and not battlegrounds.
"They're marginal," Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, said of Kerry's campaign surrogates. "You send Al Gore into hotbeds of support where throwing them a little red meat is OK. They'll cheer and yuck it up and enjoy the harsh rhetoric but that's not the rhetoric you use in the strategy of the big campaign.
"You're not going to send someone like Al Gore out to try to reach the weak leaners, the voters who might still be trying to flip for the undecided. The rhetoric is too strident, it's too extreme and it's not likely to be helpful."
For Dean's part, insiders say the former presidential hopeful doesn't go out on a whim when he stumps for Kerry.
"Everybody I've talked to about Dean has said he's asked the Kerry campaign ... he's been 100 percent a team player … I can't speak for Gore," said Chuck Todd, editor in chief of National Journal's The Hotline. Dean has "been used very carefully. I think his use has been much more careful than Gore."
Gore is more a "loose cannon" on the trail than anything else, said Democratic strategist Susan Estrich.
"I think what he says is what he thinks," Estrich said. "I think this guy has been unleashed, unzipped."
While many have noticed that the non-candidate Gore seems angrier, that may not be a bad thing, say some observers, especially when it comes to firing up loyal Democrats.
"He is a person uniquely positioned to remind those very strong, loyal Democrats what they felt on Election Day four years ago and also still are feeling," said Washington Post political writer and FOX News political analyst Ceci Connelly. "So, you do have a function that someone like former Vice President Gore can play, at really kind of peppering back at the critique and that does help energize your base."
Tony Coelho, former campaign chairman for Gore and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said the Gore we see now is "liberated," and that liberation is coming out on Kerry's trail.
"He feels good about himself but he's very involved and he's very successful being involved in the business now ... I think it's great that he's out there."
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, disagreed.
"I think most people are turned off by the harshness of his rhetoric," he said.
"Gore is clearly playing from Gore's playbook," Todd said. "He's just doing what Al Gore feels like doing, he's not checking in with anybody … I don't think it helps as much as people think, I don't think it hurts as much as people think."
The one person who could do Kerry a world of good, Todd said, is a recovering-from-heart-surgery Bill Clinton.
"Now it's sort of like, 'win one for the Gipper,'" Todd said, in reference to the late President Ronald Reagan. "For once, the Democrats may have their own Gipper."
Republican observers, however, said trotting out people like Gore and Dean into the campaign spotlight is just another way to try to boost poll numbers, and the Kerry camp really has to be wary of the Republicans waiting with bated breath for anyone to slip up.
"They're just throwing something up in the air and hoping something sticks," said GOP strategist Rich Galen. "It is like a professional football team — you can't throw a ball up into the air and hope somebody catches it … because at this point in the game, the people are too good and too quick."