The Much Sought-After Mr. Norris

Posted March 30, 2004 at 6:43pm

Driving from Columbus to Cleveland Tuesday, John Norris modestly described how he — along with turnout guru Michael Whouley — engineered one of the most amazing comebacks in modern political history.

“I always felt pretty good about Iowa,” he said. “We recognized it was very fluid out there and there was going to be a late break.”

That “late break” delivered not only a stunning Iowa caucus victory to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D) in January but also a wave of momentum that carried Kerry to victories in the New Hampshire primary as well as all but three of the contests that followed.

And with Kerry now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, his Iowa campaign manager finds himself one of the hottest commodities in party politics.

Norris has been on both sides of the campaign world over the past two cycles.

In 2002, he ran for Congress against Rep. Tom Latham (R) in the redrawn 4th district, which encompassed much of central Iowa and had a decidedly Republican bent.

Drawing on his past contacts as chief of staff for Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D), Norris raised and spent better than $1.2 million on the race.

In a relatively strong Republican year, however, he was never able to find a compelling argument why voters should fire Latham. He lost 55 percent to 43 percent.

Norris said that his experience as a candidate helped him in a number of ways when he was hired to run Kerry’s operation in Iowa.

“Having been a candidate it’s easier to manage a candidate and have a sense of what works and what doesn’t work,” Norris said. “It helped me be a better counselor on message and how to connect with Iowans.”

Jenny Backus, a Democratic consultant who was at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee when Norris ran for office, said he has a “deep understanding of the importance of cultivating relationships with people.”

Several aides to rival presidential campaigns agreed that Norris’ vision for the caucuses proved prescient.

Steve Murphy, who managed Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (D-Mo.) 2004 presidential campaign and headed up the Missouri Member’s Iowa effort 16 years before, said that Norris’ decision to focus on signing up elected officials for Kerry ran directly counter to the approach taken by his candidate and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) —the two supposed frontrunners in Iowa.

“The Gephardt and Dean campaigns had a focus on identifying a hard count,” Murphy said.

By contrast, Norris “built a top-down political structure that sustained Kerry through the weaker periods of the campaign and provided a foundation when he started to move,” Murphy added.

Norris said that even in the “lowest of the low” times last fall when polls showed Kerry was dropping like a rock in the Hawkeye State, the campaign wasn’t “losing our supporters and we continued to pick up more.

“The momentum at the end came from having a lot of people in place who were considered leaders in their communities on board with John Kerry,” he added. “It helped reassure them that the Kerry choice was the right choice.”

On caucus night, Kerry ended up with 38 percent of the vote, six points ahead of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Dean and Gephardt finished far behind, a turn of events that led Gephardt to drop out of the race the next day.

Following the Kerry triumph, Norris has done some work for the Democratic National Committee “laying some groundwork” in battleground states like Ohio and Iowa.

He said Tuesday it was only a temporary project, however, not a full-time post.

Knowledgeable sources said that Norris has been part of several national field meetings of the Kerry campaign and will play a prominent role on the ground this fall.

As for his own political future, Norris seemed keen on eventually making a return run for elected office.

“I have not ruled out running for office some day,” said Norris. “I like public service and I am drawn to public service.”