Kerry’s Backers A Little Panicky As Bush Surges

There’s no one more panicky than a New York Democrat. Endowed with their party’s inferiority complex and a native neurosis, and overwhelmed by a show of Republican force in their backyard last week, members of the city’s Democratic establishment were among the first to hit the panic button on Senator John Kerry’s Presidential campaign. Now they’re among the hardest to reassure in the face of a surging President George W. Bush.

“When campaigns face difficult times, Republicans stay focused, and New York Democrats go into group therapy,” lamented Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committeeman and major donor to the Democrats’ Presidential campaign. “We have to stay as focused as the Republicans, and as disciplined.”

New York Democrats can, perhaps, be forgiven their doubts. After a summer of tight polls and high hopes, they got a glimpse, up close, of the Republicans’ smooth operation at the midtown convention, and they shuddered though the scenes that surrounded it. There were Missouri delegates feeding our homeless for the cameras, tan Floridians holding “Jeb ’08” signs and chanting “12 more years!” New York’s sports teams were displaced for delegates, and its nightclubs transformed into black-lit hangars for Washington mixers. Meanwhile, local pols felt sidelined by Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, grumbling that he monopolized their party’s televised “response” time.

Now New York is the vortex of Democratic gloom. Local Democratic officials told The Observer they weren’t sure if Mr. Kerry could recover from a month’s pounding by the Bush campaign. One major contributor to Mr. Kerry’s Presidential campaign, who insisted on anonymity, even said he’d probably damp down his giving to Mr. Kerry’s campaign over his disappointment with how it is being run. Meanwhile, officials like Representative Charles Rangel of Harlem are offering public, unsolicited criticism. “I had nothing to do with the response [to the Republican convention], and if I did I would be embarrassed, because the response was so tepid,” he told The Observer . “I hope we’re back on the right track.”

August was a tough month for Mr. Kerry, who was trying to save his campaign money to spend closer to Election Day, and who found himself mired in a complicated, fruitless debate over his Vietnam War record. Then there was the convention, a made-for-TV blend of Sept. 11 memories and assertions that only President Bush can keep America safe. Then a pair of polls, from Time and Newsweek , showed Mr. Bush with a lead of 11 percentage points over Mr. Kerry. Finally, New York’s adopted former President, Bill Clinton, interceded from his Washington Heights hospital bed to offer Mr. Kerry advice, as a team of former Clinton aides set up shop in Mr. Kerry’s Washington headquarters.

“We had these Republicans up in our grill for the last 10 days, and there’s just been the sense that everywhere we turn, we’re seeing the Republican message machine doing a good job,” said Representative Anthony Weiner of Brooklyn. “I would spend four years being livid if I felt the successful Bush re-election got launched in New York, and a lot of local politicians are anxious about that.”

The Republican media saturation could be a little unnerving, said City Councilman Eric Gioia. “Every time you turned the page, you saw a picture of a Republican you knew saying nice things about George Bush.”

One prominent Kerry supporter, Fred Hochberg, actually made it into the belly of the G.O.P. beast, Madison Square Garden, in his capacity as dean of the New School’s Milano Graduate School.

“It was right here-it wasn’t in Philadelphia or Houston,” said Mr. Hochberg, an official in the Clinton administration who was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Boston. He left admitting that the Republicans put on a pretty good show.

“They made a good case,” he said regretfully.

And there’s something particularly jarring about seeing it happen on your own turf.

“I’ve never been in such a large space in New York City with so many people in the room and known nobody,” he said. “It’s like there’s this giant party happening in New York City, and none of us are invited.”

Too Clean

From Mr. Clinton to Mr. Rangel and down into the depths of the Democratic Party’s grassroots, the complaint has been that Mr. Kerry is keeping it too clean, responding weakly or not at all to attacks on his record and his character. They also worry that the Democratic convention’s martial themes were a distraction from the issues that Democrats win on: the economy and health care.

“The Republicans are living in Gangs of New York , and we’re playing by the rules of Olympic fencing,” said former Public Advocate Mark Green, one of Mr. Kerry’s earliest local supporters. The city’s political professionals, too, say they’d like to see more of a fight.

“Guys at my level in the business are just distraught, because they like a battle,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran New York Democratic consultant. “This is not about having a discussion that will educate and inform; this is about taking territory away from the enemy.

“I looked at the Newsweek poll and wanted to put my hat on the table with some mustard on it. This is a disgrace,” Mr. Sheinkopf said.

Even normally easygoing politicians, like Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, felt compelled to tell the campaign it needed to push back harder.

“I understood that he wanted to look forward, be positive,” she said. “But these Republicans don’t see it that way, and you just got to go right back and tell the real story.”

It’s still unclear whether some New Yorkers’ disappointment with Mr. Kerry’s efforts will translate into any problems for the campaign. The main source of worry is New York’s base of Democratic donors, who will be counted on to keep independent 527 political groups and the Democratic National Committee alike afloat as Mr. Kerry switches to public financing for the campaign’s last two months. The Senator’s leading local supporters said their phones have been ringing all week with complaints and advice from nervous donors.

“They have not done a great job getting the real issues on the table,” said Red Apple Supermarkets magnate John Catsimatidis, a major Democratic Party donor. “The Democratic convention was O.K., but people didn’t come out of it feeling that all the points had gotten across.”

Mr. Catsimatidis, like many Democrats, said he was focusing his hopes on the upcoming Presidential debates.

“John Kerry will have to hit a grand slam at the debates, getting his point across to the American people on the economic problems,” he said.

One Democratic fund-raiser, Toni Goodale, said she hoped the new, glum mood would boost Mr. Kerry’s financial support.

“People were saying, ‘He has enough money already, he’s doing well,'” she said. “Now they may be saying, ‘Wait a minute …. ‘ That’s going to be my argument-that this is really when you need it.

Other New York politicians, who pride themselves on their political sophistication, feel they should be above cyclical bouts of panic at shifting poll numbers.

“It’s so distressing-I feel like a cliché,” said one elected New York City Democrat. “Every four years, Democrats whine about how bad the candidate is and how bad the campaign is-but this time, it’s just true.”

Mr. Kerry’s aides argue that New Yorkers should know better. Every campaign, we should be telling ourselves, has its ups and downs. Every Republican convention produces a little surge in the polls. And nothing that happens before Labor Day matters anyway.

“A Presidential campaign is not a horse race,” said Howard Wolfson, a former spokesman for Senator Hillary Clinton who took a position at the D.N.C. this week as part of an infusion of Clintonites into the Kerry campaign. “A horse race is over very quickly, but a campaign lasts a long time, so people have a lot of time to look at polls and be concerned.”

Representative Greg Meeks of Queens, a Kerry backer, took the argument a step further.

“It’s like the Rumble in the Jungle,” he said, referring to the 1974 boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. “We roped and doped and [Mr. Bush] has thrown all his punches, and now he’s all out of steam.”