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Kerry Is Proactive in Wooing House

For months, John Kerry’s presidential campaign has been actively courting House Democrats and seeking their input — a move that Members say is a smart attempt to ensure that his agenda avoids a rocky start if Kerry wins the White House this fall.

Kerry officials have sat in many House Democratic Caucus, leadership and Whip meetings, beginning immediately after Kerry became the presumptive nominee. What’s more, his surrogates on and off the Hill have reached out to Members to keep them privy to campaign plans, and Kerry himself has reached out to Democratic leaders on his most important decisions, including his vice presidential search.

The Massachusetts Democrat and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), have both made personal appearances at House Democratic meetings as well — something their predecessors as nominees have not always done.

“It sets the tone for the type of relationship we’ll have when he becomes president,” said Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.). “It’s good for our Members to feel they are integrally involved now and know the administration cares about what’s going on in Congress.”

Steve Elmendorf, Kerry’s deputy campaign manager, said such outreach is not accidental. Since March, he said, the campaign has “made clear we wanted to have a very aggressive Congressional outreach program, both because Kerry believes Senators and Members are the best people to talk to about their districts, and [because] he’s lived through previous campaigns where there was less consultation.”

Elmendorf noted the Kerry campaign “basically goes to every meeting” House Democrats host, from the full Caucus and leadership gatherings to individual caucus groups.

He noted that Kerry — a four-term Senator — understands the importance of presidential candidates building Congressional relationships early. Also, many top Kerry aides hail from the Hill, including Elmendorf, a former top aide to former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), and campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, the former chief of staff to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

While Kerry lacks many close friends in the House, he is tight with the Massachusetts delegation, most notably Rep. Ed Markey (D), a close confidante. Other close allies — and some of his earliest supporters — include Reps. Bill Pascrell (N.J.), Adam Smith (Wash.), Louise Slaughter (N.Y.), Juanita Millender-McDonald (Calif.) and Earl Blumenauer (Ore.).

Kerry isn’t necessarily a personal friend with Members of the House leadership, but the Senator has been working to forge a closer alliance with them, aides and Members say.

“He’s reached out to [Pelosi] and he calls her,” said one Democratic leadership aide of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) “She likes him and has worked with him. She’s obviously willing to do whatever she can to be helpful. He’s making the efforts he should be making.”

Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), a conservative Blue Dog Democrat, said Kerry has “included all the various interests represented in the Democratic Caucus here.” He added that the Kerry campaign even solicited his advice on a vice presidential pick — a move he called “significant.”

“It will certainly inure him to a fast start and at least a receptive audience,” Tanner said. “Even if we don’t get our way, at least we’ve been included and consulted.”

Members note that if Kerry wins the White House, he will have to make some tough choices on budgets and deficit spending, as well as on homeland security. They add that he will need broad support on the Hill from all segments of the party.

The Kerry campaign recognizes that, and believes that, if he’s elected, House and Senate Democrats will be his best and strongest advocates.

“You want Members invested in your election, and you want them invested in your platform and in your message,” Elmendorf said. “That’s the reason we’ve spent a lot of time with them.”

Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), who backed Kerry well before the Senator’s surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses, said the presidential hopeful couldn’t be playing it more wisely.

“Obviously, tough choices will have to be made after the election, and the relationship must be strong,” Ford said. “The belief that there is access to the president [for House Democrats] will have to be there. It’s smart on the campaign’s part to keep the relationship open.”

As an example of Kerry’s willingness to listen to the House, campaign officials quickly revised an ad targeting minority voters after the Congressional Black Caucus criticized it as lackluster.

Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), a longtime Kerry friend and ally, said he is one of the campaign liaisons tasked with ensuring Kerry’s success as a leader. He said he has been working within the Caucus to bolster Kerry’s support, not only among Democrats but across the aisle as well.

“A campaign is a campaign, and governance is something else,” Delahunt said. “This is a process that constantly has to be worked on, and Kerry’s aware of it.”

Rep. Richard Neal, another Massachusetts Democrat and Kerry liaison, said Kerry does not want to repeat the mistakes of past Democratic presidential candidates and presidents, who were blamed for not doing enough to reach out or listen to House Democrats.

“House Democrats got off to a rocky start with Bill Clinton — if for no other reason than he needed to reform the agenda,” Neal said. “That caused substantial dismay within the Caucus.”

Because of that, Neal said, “We’ve made sure that anybody who wanted to talk to John Kerry had the opportunity to talk to him.”

Many Members said Kerry is trying to steer clear of any obstacles both during the campaign and if he wins. Al Gore, the Democratic nominee in 2000, was roundly criticized for neglecting House Democrats.

Members suggested that Kerry, as a veteran Senator who has dealt with many a Democratic presidential candidate, understands the mistakes of the past and doesn’t want to repeat them.

“We have a good foundation of knowledge about what’s going on on the ground, and we know how to move votes — that’s why it is so important to have a relationship,” said Rep. Al Wynn (Md.), a Congressional Black Caucus Member. “Kerry’s done a good job. He’s learned from the mistakes and is moving in the right direction.”

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