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The miracle worker


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Mary Beth Cahill used blunt talk and discipline to bring back John Kerry. No surprise from this working-class Catholic girl

No one enjoys a chance to poke a little fun at the mannerisms of Boston's Brahmin class as much as those who grew up in its working-class shadows.

Which is probably why the daughter of St. Peter's parish in Dorchester, Mass., delivers such a wicked funny impression of the deep patrician voice that was on the other end of the line when she picked up the phone at home one Friday night last November.

"Mary Beth," she says, tucking her chin, locking her jaw and dropping a register or two, "this is John Kerry." Mary Beth Cahill knew why he was calling.

The presidential candidate whom everyone had once anointed the Democratic front runner was careering toward oblivion. Kerry was about to fire his campaign manager and wanted Senator Edward Kennedy's chief of staff to take over an operation that was short on money, full of backbiting and left in the dust by the Internet-and-anger-fueled phenomenon that was Howard Dean.

"So I showed up Monday morning," she says, "and that was that."

It was not the first time the former congressional-office receptionist had got a 911 call from a desperate politician.

At a time when operatives can become as famous as the candidates they work for, Cahill's is not a name you hear on the cable-and-best-seller circuit. But few can match her record for turning around campaigns that are just this side of hopeless.

And she was one of the few people left in Washington who shared Kerry's belief that his luck hadn't run out. "She felt it was winnable," Kerry told TIME. "She distinctly felt that, as I did. But we knew we had to make some adjustments."

That's a delicate way of describing the upheaval that took place when Cahill arrived the following Monday morning at the shabby Capitol Hill town house that serves as campaign headquarters.

Three months later, Kerry finds himself with 18 primaries and caucus wins under his belt and could be on the verge of clinching the nomination. Campaigns are won by candidates, of course, but someone had to come up with and stick to a plan that would have Kerry standing in just the right spot if lightning struck.

That was Cahill's job, and the against-the-odds strategy that she executed paid off in ways that more than justified the confidence Kerry had placed in her. "It just liberated me," Kerry says of her arrival. "It completely liberated me to focus on my message and focus on the energy I needed to put into day-to-day campaigning and on the people I was meeting. To not be distracted, to be able to really just give it 100% focus, which is what it takes. It helped to make me a better candidate."

In pulling it off, the 49-year-old woman with a shock of prematurely white hair has brought back into fashion the fundamentals of politics—the organization and discipline that seemed quaintly last century when stacked up against the technology and passion and money that Dean had going for him.

But it's her personal toughness that the politicians who have relied on her talk about more than anything else. Vermont's Senator Patrick Leahy credits that quality with pulling him through his most difficult race ever.

He hired Cahill to run his 1986 re-election race when, after barely winning his first two Senate runs, he found himself up against four-term Governor Richard Snelling, one of the state's biggest vote getters.

It was Cahill's first chance to run a big race, and it was getting national attention because Leahy had been pegged as one of the most vulnerable Senators in the country. "She just told me what I was going to do and gave me that look, and I said, 'All right,'" Leahy says. "To this day, people consider it the best-run campaign in Vermont history."

When Snelling hired an ad firm known for its attacks, Cahill put up pre-emptive ads lamenting the prospect of negative campaigning in a state known for civilized politics. "The poor guy got so flustered, he didn't know what to do," Leahy recalls. "People were coming up to him saying 'We don't do this in Vermont.'"

Toward the end, the exhausted Leahy wanted to coast, pleading he didn't need to make yet another trip to a small town he had already been to half a dozen times.

"Why am I dragging myself down there again?" Leahy protested. "I'm going to win anyway." Cahill cut him off: "Do you want to win, or do you want to win big?" He trounced Snelling on Election Day by 29 points. Four years later, Cahill engineered an equally unlikely landslide for Rhode Island's eccentric Claiborne Pell.

Cahill grew up in a part of Boston where politics "comes with your mother's milk," says Father Robert Drinan, the former Congressman of antiwar fame.

He hired Cahill to answer phones in his office in 1976, when she graduated from Emmanuel College, a Catholic institution that was still all women at the time.

The daughter of an Irish immigrant autoworker at General Motors' Framingham factory and a first-generation Irish-American homemaker, Cahill attributes her bossiness to being the eldest of six children (three boys, three girls) and says she honed her political reflexes at a dinner table at which "you were expected to have an opinion and you were expected to be able to defend it."

When the Roman Catholic Church ordered Father Drinan and all other priests out of politics, she stayed on doing constituent work and organizing campaigns for his successor, Barney Frank, and then went on to a string of political jobs that included a stint running EMILY's List, a fund-raising powerhouse that trains and raises money for women candidates.

She also ran Bill Clinton's White House liaison operation, handling various constituency groups, including business. While working on China trade policy, she met her future husband Steve Champlin, a lobbyist for the Duberstein Group, but the two didn't really start to get to know each other until they found themselves with time to kill at the Seattle airport after the riotous WTO talks of 1999.

Their courtship played out in a uniquely Beltway fashion. She asked him to the White House Millennium Ball. ("Not too much pressure," she laughs.) In less than a year, they were married.

When Cahill landed at the Kerry campaign, it needed a battle plan—and a peace plan. Fighting within the campaign had become so bad that the factions had drafted dueling versions of Kerry's announcement speech.

The feuding provided plenty of material for reporters, to the point where focus groups in New Hampshire started telling pollsters they couldn't see handing the country over to someone who couldn't even run his own campaign.

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."

Copyright © 2004 Time Inc.

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