Cleland Makes Kerry’s Case in House

Posted July 7, 2004 at 6:24pm

Former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) is quietly becoming John Kerry’s top ambassador to House Democrats as he works to rally the Caucus around the party’s presidential ticket.

Cleland, a Vietnam veteran ousted in the 2002 election by Republican Saxby Chambliss, has twice met privately with Members to build support for Kerry and lend advice on approaches to the ongoing conflict in Iraq. The former Georgia lawmaker sat down with the full Caucus on Wednesday and in May met with several senior Members at a Democratic whip session.

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who invited Cleland to the first session with his senior Whip team and encouraged him to attend the full Caucus, called Cleland “one of the most compelling voices John Kerry has.”

House Democrats often meet with Kerry’s staff and allies, but rarely with high-profile and well-respected surrogates such as Cleland. The one-term Senator who lost three limbs in Vietnam shares Kerry’s war experience and has been delivering a message that the Massachusetts Senator and his vice presidential pick, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), are fighters who can overthrow the Bush White House.

“This guy is bringing the Kerry campaign to the House Democrats and connecting him to the House Democrats,” said a senior House Democratic aide. “He’s rising up as the top Kerry surrogate.”

Hoyer said Cleland is the best example of Republican efforts to wrongly paint Democrats as unpatriotic and weak on national security. Cleland suffered his stunning defeat following Republican ads that characterized the veteran as unpatriotic.

“He has a real commitment to this country and I think the Kerry campaign felt he would be a wonderful validator of John Kerry and the Democrats’ commitment to a strong America here and abroad,” Hoyer said.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) said Cleland is not only a strong spokesman for the Kerry ticket, but also for the party because of “how he lost his race and what Republicans used and said against him [despite] knowing his sacrifices, both physical and personal.”

Menendez said that while Cleland focused mostly on the Kerry-Edwards ticket Wednesday, he also is a tremendous resource for House Democrats on two of their top issues — veterans and foreign affairs.

“Max is just someone who inspires and instills confidences and gives people the adrenaline because of his history and his persona,” Menendez said.

As part of that, Cleland has been relaying to Members in the private sessions that Kerry will win this election, at times calling him a “fighter” and a “battler.” Cleland explained that Kerry survived war, while Edwards survived the death of his 16-year-old son, showing the team knows first-hand how to overcome the odds.

“He made a personal appeal that these guys [are] fighters and winners and they are going to come out take it to Bush,” said one Democratic leadership aide.

“There’s no doubt he’s got to call somebody into help energize House Democrats, and it’s definitely Cleland,” added another well-placed Democratic staffer. “He will definitely be coming back.”