Kerry Looks to Tighten Grip

Posted January 26, 2004 at 6:11pm

Aides to Sen. John Kerry will convene a meeting of the Massachusetts Democrat’s Congressional whip team today as the campaign seeks to capitalize on the momentum gained from his win in the Iowa caucuses.

The meeting this evening, which will be led by Steve Elmendorf, the newly installed deputy campaign manager to Kerry’s presidential bid, comes as New Hampshire voters head to the polls for that state’s first-in-the-nation primary. Kerry holds a double-digit lead over former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, according to an aggregate of tracking polls in the Granite State.

The assembled Members will make phone calls to prominent Democrats in states holding Feb. 3 primaries in an attempt to recruit other elected officials to the Kerry cause.

Next Tuesday, voters will head to the polls in Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Carolina.

Tonight’s meeting will be followed Wednesday by another gathering to which all undecided House Members have been invited. Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.), Kerry’s most vocal Congressional supporter, will be in attendance; Kerry will call in from the road.

“We have a huge crowd up there worried about New Hampshire,” said Elmendorf. “I am worried about their political outreach in Feb. 3 states.”

Even Kerry staffers admit that their focus on Iowa and New Hampshire has left those seven states largely unorganized to this point.

“The mission now is to turn [Kerry] into a national player and Steve’s Rolodex will help him do that,” said Democratic consultant Jenny Backus.

The biggest fish remaining in the endorsement pool is South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, who had previously committed to Gephardt. Clyburn has indicated he is deciding between Kerry and Sen. John Edwards (N.C.).

Already, Kerry’s campaign has begun to make significant inroads in the race for Member endorsements since his Iowa victory, as South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings, Sen. Daniel Inouye (Hawaii) and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.) have endorsed his candidacy in recent days.

Rep. Patrick Kennedy (R.I.), a Gephardt supporter, campaigned with his uncle, Sen. Kennedy, for Kerry in New Hampshire this past weekend.

Kerry now has 28 Member supporters. Dean leads the field with 38 Members in the fold.

Those outreach efforts will be aided by the addition of Elmendorf, who until last Friday had been a senior adviser to Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (Mo.) presidential campaign.

After a disappointing fourth place finish in Iowa, Gephardt dropped out of the presidential race, freeing up his staff as well as his 34 Member backers to look elsewhere for a candidate.

Elmendorf spent more than a decade in Gephardt’s service, the last six years as his chief of staff — experience with the inner workings of Capitol Hill that will aid Kerry’s quickly emerging efforts to cement himself as the race’s frontrunner.

“I bring a whole bunch of Gephardt relationships that I have developed over the last 12 years,” said Elmendorf. “I will do everything I can to work those people and sign them up for Kerry.”

Elmendorf praised the organization already in place to recruit Members that is being headed up by Rep. Ed Markey (Mass.).

“Adding Steve Elmendorf to the John Kerry campaign is like adding a number one draft pick to an all-star team,” said Markey from the road in New Hampshire. “You can’t go wrong.”

Donna Brazile, campaign manager for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential bid and a longtime Gephardt confidante, echoed Markey’s praise.

“Steve is a heavy lifter,” said Brazile, a Roll Call contributing writer, who has not taken sides in the presidential race. “Kerry needs a strong liaison to Members of the House.”

Not all Kerry supporters were thrilled with Elmendorf’s hiring, however, as national political director Luis Navarro quit upon receiving the news.

Elmendorf noted that he had conversations with officials in the campaigns of Edwards and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, but chose Kerry because of his close relationship with campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill and the fact that the Massachusetts Senator is the “most electable” Democrat in the field.

“He has the stature and judgment you need to get on a stage with George W. Bush,” Elmendorf said of his new boss.

Adopting a strategy employed by Gephardt in this campaign as well as his 1988 presidential run, Kerry has used his Member supporters as validators of his candidacy in New Hampshire.

The campaign estimated that 15 Members have spent significant time in the state over the past week, a group that includes the entire Massachusetts delegation and New York Reps. Gregory Meeks and Carolyn Maloney.

Hollings appeared with Kerry and former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland — a fellow Vietnam veteran — at an event last Friday. Cleland told the audience that Kerry had “been there, done that and gotten a few holes in his T-shirt,” referring to the Massachusetts Senator’s service in Vietnam.

With the New Hampshire primary wrapping up today, Kerry, Edwards, Clark and Dean are looking to Feb. 3 as perhaps the decisive moment in the race.

The biggest prize next Tuesday is Missouri with its 87 delegates. The state is seen as a jump ball since none of the candidates has spent significant time there, assuming that Gephardt would roll to a victory in his homestate.

With the Missouri Congressman out, Edwards has moved quickly to scoop up key players including former Missouri Democratic party spokesman Mike Kelley and Gov. Bob Holden’s (D-Mo.) chief of staff, Julie Gibson.

In polling released today, Edwards led in South Carolina, Kerry in Arizona and Clark in Oklahoma. All three surveys showed the races in each state within the margin of error, however.