The Miracle Worker

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WINNING TEAM: Cahill and Kerry, with media consultant Bob Shrum, right, look over primary results before a rally at George Mason University

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Cahill's first act was to remove the candidate from the free-fire zone. "The best thing she did was take away John Kerry's cell phone," says an adviser. That's not quite true, but almost. "It's really important to him that his daughters be able to reach him," Cahill says, "but I did definitely cut down on the calls where when you don't like a decision, call John and reopen it. That doesn't happen anymore."

One way that Cahill brought about a truce was to bring in a cadre of Kerry's longtime Boston operatives. They had been shut out by her predecessor, Jim Jordan, who had made no secret of the fact that he regarded most of them as small-time hacks. They held Jordan in equal regard and let Kerry know at every back-channel opportunity. Jordan had also butted heads with media consultant Bob Shrum, who has rarely been on the losing side of an internal battle.

Cahill felt that the Boston allies who had seen Kerry through difficult fights in the past, especially his brutal re-election campaign in 1996, understood the candidate in a way no one else could. Strategist John Marttila started showing up at campaign headquarters three days a week. Pollster Tom Kiley was charged with keeping track of voter opinion in New Hampshire. The press office had cleared out with Jordan, so she brought in Michael Meehan, Kerry's 1996 campaign spokesman, and hired Stephanie Cutter, Kennedy's former spokeswoman. Michael Whouley, one of the most gifted organizers in the party (and a product of St. Peter's parish), also came aboard and agreed to make a quiet reconnaissance trip to Iowa a few days before Thanksgiving. Between Jordan's hires and Cahill's, there were at least two of everything—pollsters, consultants, representatives. But Cahill was able to bring order to it all, she says, "because everybody who was around the table was familiar to me." And she let them all know they had to play by her rules. "There is no dissension—zero," says Whouley. "There is no second-guessing—zero. There is no leaking—zero."

Cahill beefed up the campaign's outreach to veterans and decreed an end to the gimmick of posing Kerry on a Harley at nearly every campaign stop. She bluntly told the candidate he had to quit sounding as if he were on the Senate floor and start showing some fire. But her first big strategic move made hardly any sense at all to anyone who wasn't at Cahill's table. With Kerry trailing in New Hampshire, campaign staff members would look instead to Iowa's caucuses the week before to give them a bank shot. "We knew that Dean didn't have what he said he did [in Iowa]," Cahill recalls. "We knew they did not have on the ground what they said they had. It was never real."

So she pulled resources from other states and sent them to the Midwest. "We were running in Iowa an absolutely classic caucus operation," she says. "We were just methodically finding our voters and getting them to the polls." But that meant leaving Kerry's New Hampshire backyard nearly unattended, except for appearances by his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry and his campaign chairwoman, former New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen. It wasn't easy to watch Kerry drop steadily in the public polls in a state that everyone knew he needed to win. Staff members on the floor below could hear Cahill's reaction each morning when the public polls would reach her computer screen. They called it "the 10:30 scream."

The gut check for both Cahill and Kerry came in early December, when she made a quiet Sunday-afternoon visit to the Senator and his wife at their Louisburg Square town house in Boston and laid out the grim financial reality of their situation. "It was very clinical," she recalls. "Here are the facts. Here's what we need." What they needed was a lot more money, and they weren't going to get it unless Kerry took out a mortgage on the very house in which they were meeting. The problem wasn't that he couldn't swing the $6.4 million loan. It was that he would be sending a message to the political establishment that John Kerry was scraping bottom and no one was willing to throw him a life preserver. "That was obviously a moment when you decide that you believe in what you are doing enough to really put some high stakes on it," Kerry says now. "I did, and I think she knew it."

It turned out that every bet they made has paid off—at least so far. Visit Kerry's campaign headquarters these days, and those desperate times of less than three months ago seem like something from a misty past. One morning last week found the campaign's finance chief, Louis Susman, wandering through the buzzing hallways and asking if anyone could spare him a phone line. Which is why one of Cahill's next jobs is to find a new headquarters—say, one where she won't blow the circuit on the computers when she plugs in her space heater. Kerry still has to win the nomination, and Cahill takes nothing for granted. "The thing that is so clear about this election cycle is that you just have to keep on keeping on, because who knows what is going to happen?" she says, flicking into the trash one of the Nicorette gum wrappers that Shrum is always leaving around her office. "It's the completely unglamorous fundamentals."

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