Don’t Forget, Hire the Vet
Democratic Presidential Contenders Scrambling to Put Together Top-Flight Staffs in Headquarters and Key States
In the 60 minutes following Sen. Thomas Daschle’s (D-S.D.) announcement earlier this month that he would not seek the presidency, one campaign operative received three phone calls.
Sens. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and Bob Graham (Fla.), and Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.). Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) called within the week.
All four sought to woo the operative into their camps for the upcoming scramble for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Over the next 10 days, the strategist spoke with each of the likely Democratic White House contenders but came away a bit perplexed by their courting methods, suggesting that “if candidates are going to persuade people to support them over others in a competitive field, they need to provide the arguments of why they deserve the support.”
So goes the intense — and often frenetic — pursuit of campaign talent among the Democrats hoping to win their party’s presidential nod.
The approach taken by each of the six men given a realistic chance of winning the nomination — Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean fill out the top tier — reveals a great deal about their tactics in pursuit of the nomination.
Each candidate has a core group that has spent months, and often years, quietly making preparations for the race, but the decisions on when and whom to add to their inner circle is being handled very differently by the six men.
“There is no substitute for staff,” said one campaign operative, who is currently unaffiliated. “It is the most overlooked area of a presidential [campaign] but one of the most critical.”
Another senior campaign strategist who has yet to cast a lot with any of the campaigns echoed the sentiment, noting that “there is a finite talent pool, and bringing on good people is critical.”
The most aggressive candidate in hiring staff has been Kerry, not surprising given that the Massachusetts Senator eyed a White House bid in 2000 and has been preparing to join the presidential process even before he won a fourth term in 2002.
“John Kerry is pleased with his early success in landing top talent to run a lean, efficient campaign operation appropriate to a national campaign,” said Deputy Communications Director David Wade.
Kerry’s inner circle may be the most impressive of any of the candidates, boasting renowned field organizer Michael Whouley, former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Executive Director Jim Jordan, and longtime Massachusetts political operative John Sasso.
Kerry has also built a large and experienced press team headed by Chris Lehane, spokesman for the 2000 presidential campaign of then-Vice President Al Gore.
Kerry scored points in the campaign community and media with his successful courting of John Norris to run his Iowa operation and Ken Robinson to handle New Hampshire, two key early states in the primary process.
Norris, former chief of staff to Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) and a 2002 Congressional candidate, is seen as a stellar hire in the all-important Hawkeye State.
Robinson currently serves as the executive director of the New Hampshire Democratic Party and will be joined by an impressive roster of Granite Staters including Bill Shaheen, husband of former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D).
“John Kerry has one of the best teams on the field,” noted one Democratic observer, who compared it to Gore’s presidential campaign staff at the same point in 1999.
“Both [Kerry and Gore] know that the greatest asset you can have is people,” said the source.
Gore, however, seemed pulled in several directions by factions within his staff during the race, which led to criticism that he never revealed his true personality to voters.
One Democratic strategist said the lesson to be learned from Gore’s campaign is: “Beware the cult of the consultants.”
Wade made no apologies for the size of the staff.
“The fact that more established and familiar candidates have struggled in [hiring] while Kerry has excelled is a testimony both to his disciplined effort and the party’s desire for a fresh voice with a proven track record,” he said.
Steve Elmendorf, a senior strategist to Gephardt’s presidential bid, offered a different interpretation of Kerry’s rapid hiring.
“It is a sign they are going to spend the ketchup money,” Elmendorf said.
Kerry’s wife, Theresa Heinz, is heir to the Heinz ketchup fortune, estimated at $600 million. She has said repeatedly that she does not plan to dip into her fortune unless her husband is personally attacked by another candidate. There are no limits on what an individual can contribute to a spouse’s presidential campaign.
Gephardt, the only candidate to have pursued his party’s nomination before, has adopted a much more gradual approach to staffing his campaign.
“Our first organizing principle is the fewer people you hire the better, and the later you hire them the better,” said Elmendorf.
Gephardt’s decision to slow-walk the hiring process can be traced to his experience in the 1988 presidential campaign. After winning the Iowa caucuses he emerged strapped for cash and ended up dropping out of the contest seven weeks later.
Elmendorf pointed out that because of the crowded field of credible candidates and new campaign finance regulations, conserving money is one of the campaign’s top priorities.
“There is a natural cap of what you can raise,” said Elmendorf, estimating that the best-financed campaigns will be able to put together between $15 million and $20 million for the primary season.
The essential cogs of the larger Gephardt apparatus are in place, however, as Elmendorf, senior political adviser David Plouffe and campaign manager Steve Murphy are all on staff.
A number of other advisers expected to play integral roles in the Gephardt effort are informally working for the campaign now without drawing a paycheck, according to Elmendorf.
“We have a lot of people who have worked for Dick for a long time who have made some money and are not mercenaries,” he explained.
Although Gephardt’s staff is considered the most battle-tested of any in the field, it has stumbled out of the starting gate more than any other campaign.
The announcement of Gephardt’s exploratory presidential committee was muffed when a fundraising letter was prematurely leaked to the press.
Gephardt also had a misstep in South Carolina when he initially failed to take a definitive position on flying the Confederate flag over the state Capitol before declaring that he vehemently opposed it.
“Of the major campaigns, they have been the worst out of the box,” said one unaffiliated Democrat.
The freshest face among the Democratic candidates is Edwards, who has served in the Senate — his first elected office — since just 1998.
As a result, Edwards doesn’t have the longtime staffers that Gephardt and, to a lesser extent, Kerry have drawn from in their early hires.
Edwards Communications Director David Ginsberg said the goal of their hires is “to create a team that works well together.”
Aiming to firm up the campaign’s reputation as the place for young up and comers, Ginsberg said that “we are not always going to be looking for people that have been around for 20 years.”
Even so, Edwards has earned mostly positive reviews for his staff choices.
“He is quietly putting together an extremely effective team,” said one Democratic operative without ties to any camp, who added that Edwards has looked outside of the Beltway in his talent search more than the other candidates.
Nick Baldick is set to manage Edwards’ campaign after heading up Gore’s 2000 New Hampshire primary campaign. Baldick also handled Gore’s “Leadership ’98” political action committee, and prior to that worked in the Clinton White House’s Office of Public Affairs.
Most recently, he served as a principal in the Dewey Square Group, a public affairs firm that doubles as an incubator for top-level presidential talent.
“Nick Baldick has worked for and learned all the lessons of the great masters,” said one source. “This is his opportunity to get his own painting at the exhibition.”
Graham, Dean and Lieberman are all several steps behind — each for a different reason.
Graham has yet to formally enter the race, although he is widely expected to join the fray in the coming weeks. Until he officially enters the contest, staff will be hard to come by.
Lieberman, long hamstrung by his pledge not to run for president if Gore chose to run again, officially announced his candidacy Jan. 13 and is only now putting out feelers for staff.
“We’re just beginning to build a campaign infrastructure and staff that will be working together for the next 18 months,” said Sherry Brown, executive director of ROCPAC, Lieberman’s leadership political action committee. “As the Senator has said this is not a sprint, it is a marathon.”
Although no hires have officially been made, several people with ties to the Gore-Lieberman ticket in 2000 are regularly cited as likely members of the Lieberman team.
Among those mentioned: Jim Kennedy, communications director for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.); Lieberman spokesman Dan Gerstein; and former Clinton speechwriter Kenny Baer.
In the consultant community, top Gore strategists Mark Penn and Carter Eskew are also likely to be involved, according to several Democratic sources.
Dean’s sleek staff is dictated by the expectations that he will have significantly less resources than the other major candidates.
The former Vermont governor has said that he will accept public financing in the primary, which puts limits on the amount of money he can raise and spend in each state. He is the only Democrat to make such a pledge.
In an interview last week, Dean said the campaign’s fundraising goal for 2003 is $10 million. Dean added that he expects to have 25 full-time staffers by the end of this month and 50 by mid-April.
Dean has acquitted himself well with his early hires, according to close watchers of the staffing process.
Rick Ridder, a Denver-based media consultant, has moved to Burlington to manage the campaign; former Democratic National Committee Chairman Steve Grossman will serve as Dean’s finance chairman; Steve McMahon is expected to handle the ads for Dean.
Sue Allen, press secretary for Dean, described the campaign as “lean and mean.”
“We aren’t the Rolls-Royce,” she added. “We’re more like a Ford Taurus with a souped-up engine.”