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Kerry Seeks to Steady Backers

Aides Hit Hill Seeking Unity

Attempting to staunch talk that their campaign is on the ropes, top advisers to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s presidential bid will meet with House and Senate Democrats today as part of a broader effort to calm concerns and ensure a unified message over the final 55 days of the contest.

The gatherings, which will be led by Kerry senior strategist Tad Devine, will cover finances, media efforts and polling, according to deputy campaign manager Steve Elmendorf.

The Kerry entourage also will talk about “what the message is and what we want [Members] to be saying,” Elmendorf added.

A conference call with Democratic governors to brief them on the status of the campaign, as well as a similar meeting with members of the D.C. lobbying community, also were scheduled for today.

Adding a bit of honey to their pleas for unity, the Kerry campaign delivered $3 million checks to the heads of both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee last night.

The transfer of the previously promised funds comes from excess monies raised during Kerry’s primary campaign. He has now accepted roughly $75 million in public funds for the duration of the general election and, as a result, is barred from raising any other money.

The flurry of briefings comes after several recent polls showed President Bush receiving a significant bounce from the Republican convention last week.

Polls conducted for Time and Newsweek magazines both put Bush’s lead at 11 points, while a Gallup survey showed the president with a 52 percent to 45 percent edge among likely voters. Bush led 49 percent to 48 percent among registered voters in that survey.

One House Democratic leadership aide said the two magazine polls “are a cause for some concern.”

Another House aide added that “the media saturation of the bounce Bush got out of this convention and all the negativity that apparently resonates with the American public [has created] some concerns among members of the Democratic Caucus.”

Elmendorf insisted that the meetings had long been planned and were not in reaction to whispers that recent polls and personnel changes in the campaign reflected a lack of direction.

“Congress is returning, and that’s when a lot of people renew their focus on the race,” Elmendorf explained.

That said, Elmendorf acknowledged that the campaign “reads the newspapers” and is aware of the current mood in the party.

In a call with campaign surrogates Tuesday, which was led by Kerry Congressional liaisons David Castignetti and Broderick Johnson, several Members expressed annoyance at their colleagues’ willingness to publicly question Kerry’s decision-making, especially in regard to the attacks on his military record by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

“Our hope is by talking to the broader group we will get that message out,” Elmendorf said.

A Democratic leadership aide said that after a decade as the minority party in the House, Members “generally understand that if we want to win we have to be on message and support our nominee.”

Even so, a number of operatives said they anticipated widespread questioning of the campaign’s tactics at the Caucus meetings today.

DCCC Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) offered a preview of those criticisms Tuesday, arguing that “there is no question looking back on it if our candidate had spoken out more forcefully on this it might have been helpful.”

Kerry largely ignored the Swift boat charges that he did not merit commendations received for his service in Vietnam until it became clear that these insinuations were damaging his credentials as a decorated veteran.

The response, when it came, was viewed as too little, too late by a number of strategists both inside and outside the campaign.

Seemingly as a result of that tumult, Kerry turned to a number of experienced operatives to reinvigorate the campaign including former Clinton aides Joe Lockhart, Joel Johnson and Doug Sosnik, as well as longtime party strategists John Sasso and Michael Whouley.

Kerry’s camp insisted that these changes reflect an effort to beef up their ranks in the campaign’s final two months, not a dissatisfaction with the current team.

Although there is some level of disappointment with the current state of play on the presidential level, several Members insisted their colleagues expected that Bush would receive a bounce from his convention and are not panicked over recent polls.

“The bounce is temporary,” said Matsui. “In another two weeks we will be in a dead heat again.”

He did add, however, that the three weeks between the two conventions hurt Kerry and “looking back we probably made a mistake [by giving] Republicans an opportunity to attack without having to reveal their hand.”

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), a former senior aide to Clinton, expressed little concern about the presidential landscape.

“The media has written a story that is 96 hours behind the curve,” Emanuel said. The Kerry campaign “has turned the corner both staffing-wise and message-wise.”