PHILADELPHIA—”Long live McCurry,” wrote the Boston Globe’s Glen Johnson in a Tuesday pool report, distributed to the members of the traveling press corps who hunt the elusive Senatorus massachusetts. The occasion for this joyous outburst: John Kerry responded to a question, and the press credits Mike McCurry, the former Clinton press secretary and now the “adult on the plane” for the Kerry campaign, with making the Democratic nominee more accessible. “Will transcribe, but nothing earth-shaking,” Johnson wrote. “At least he stopped to answer, though. Long live McCurry …”
McCurry denies that he’s responsible for the shift and credits communications director Stephanie Cutter for pushing for more accessibility long before he arrived last week. Either way, the reporters don’t care. We were just happy Thursday that Kerry was answering questions again. He did it twice this time, very quickly on the tarmac here with unified middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins and earlier in a more formal environment in Columbus, Ohio. Of Hopkins, Kerry said, “He was giving me tips. He told me exactly how to do it over the next days.” Hopkins said, “Exactly, the left hands, the jabs, the whole nine yards.” The Globe’s Johnson asked, “So you’re coming from the left, sir?” Kerry: “I’m not telling you where I’m coming from. That’s the secret, right?” Hopkins: “That’s right. You don’t tell everyone, especially the opponent.” For the record, Hopkins has successfully defended his title 19 times, which beats Bob Shrum’s 0-7 mark.
In Columbus, Kerry took only three questions, but again, we’re not complaining. ABC’s Dan Harris asked: “You criticized, to the AP, the president for ‘retreating,’ I believe was your word, from Fallujah. Given the situation on the ground in Fallujah when there was an offensive there, when there was a rising civilian death toll, a rising criticism among Arab media for our actions there, what would you have done differently?”
Kerry responded in what was almost a reproachful tone, complaining about how “you people judge me” and how his policies “would have prevented Fallujah.” Here’s his response in full: “Let me tell you, I’ve said many times, I wouldn’t have just done one thing differently in Iraq, I would have done almost everything differently. And when you people judge me, and the American people judge me on this, I want you to judge me on the full record. I stood in Fulton, Mo., and I gave the president advice about what he needed to do. He didn’t take it. I stood at Georgetown University a year and a half ago, and I gave the president advice about what he needed to do. He didn’t take it. I stood on the floor of the Senate and gave him advice about what he needed to do. He didn’t take it. I’ve laid out a whole series of things I would have done that would have prevented Fallujah. Let me tell you, if the 4th Infantry Division and the diplomacy had been done with Turkey, you wouldn’t have had a Fallujah. This president rushed to war, without a plan to win the peace. And ask the military leaders. Go ask the military leaders. General Shinseki told this country how many troops we’d need. The president retired him early for telling the truth. That’s why you have Fallujah. That’s why you have a mess in Iraq. And that’s not the kind of leadership this nation deserves.”
As for McCurry, I had dinner with him Thursday night. Here are some quick takeaways from our conversation:
—He’s concerned that the message-masters at the Bush campaign, such as Nicolle Devenish and Mark McKinnon, have a better understanding of the Internet and nontraditional media than the Kerry campaign. The slow response to the Swift boat ads was a sign of that, a lack of awareness that voters can acquire information from places other than newspapers and the nightly news.
—John Glenn told Kerry Thursday not to worry about the polls that show Bush opening a big lead in Ohio, McCurry said. That always happens around this time, Glenn said, and the mistake people make is to write off the state because of it, as Gore did. McCurry said Glenn persuaded Clinton to remain in Ohio after a similar spike in the polls in 1992, and Clinton carried the state.
—Why are the polls showing an increase in undecided voters? One theory: Soft Republican supporters and soft Democratic supporters are highly volatile this campaign, and the conventions made them “more inchoate.” The Republicans are mostly pro-choice moderates who are wondering whether Bush is really compassionate, and the Democrats are moderates who are wondering whether Kerry is really a New Democrat.
—The windsurfing ad that the Bush campaign is running against Kerry is an attempt to be this year’s “Dukakis in the tank” spot. McCurry thinks the Kerry campaign neutralized it with their quickly assembled response ad, though it’s not over yet.
—McCurry would like Kerry to talk more about abortion, about how he struggles with it because of his Catholic faith. He thinks Kerry needs to come up with a “safe, legal, and rare”-type formula that assures anti-abortion swing voters that he understands their moral concerns and isn’t dismissive of them.
—McCurry has never been a big believer in the role of advertising or get-out-the-vote drives in presidential campaigns, though he’s acquired a new respect for GOTV after 2000 and 2002. He thinks presidential races come down to whether the candidate can make the sale on the stump. You can’t, after all, run TV ads that are completely different from what voters are seeing on the news.
Which leaves the obvious question: Can Kerry make the sale? That was where the race stood before the Democratic Convention in July, and that’s where it remains two months later. Kerry hasn’t shown he can do it yet. He’s got 40 days.