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Sources: Democratic leaders urge Kerry campaign changes

Campaign refutes reports of shake-up

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Is John Kerry's presidential campaign adrift?
America Votes 2004
John F. Kerry
Mary Beth Cahill

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Democratic leaders, increasingly concerned that John Kerry's presidential campaign is adrift, are urging the presidential nominee to make changes in his staff before Labor Day, according to some party sources.

If not, said one party strategist, "it could be too late." Sources say major changes could come at the campaign's highest level.

The concern, according to these sources, is that Kerry has failed to effectively respond to attacks from Republicans and criticism of his military service in Vietnam, particular ads from a group calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Several campaign sources dismissed talk of a "major" shake-up. But these sources acknowledge there will be some changes in the coming days and some "evolving roles" at the campaign's senior level.

"We don't have a Carville or a Begala," said a senior Kerry official, referring to Democratic strategists James Carville and Paul Begala, who masterminded Bill Clinton's successful 1992 campaign. "We can't mimic what happened in 1992."

The worry voiced by some Democrats comes as Republicans meet in New York for their nominating convention.

Much of the Democrats' criticism -- which is coming from donors, top strategists and elected officials -- was directed at Mary Beth Cahill, who was hired to run Kerry's campaign after the senator fired campaign manager Jim Jordan in late 2003. Democrats are also urging the candidate to overhaul his media strategy, led by communications director Stephanie Cutter.

There's no indication that Kerry will fire Cahill or Cutter, or change their titles. Cahill has spent the past several days with Kerry at his home in Nantucket, and she also met with the candidate at a private home Monday for 90 minutes. Kerry met with her again, along with his finance chairman, Louis Susman, on Tuesday morning.

But sources say Kerry could bring in other top advisers who would have more authority over strategy and day-to-day operations. Two people who could fill those roles are Joe Lockhart, a Democratic consultant and former Clinton press secretary, who was brought into the campaign last week as a senior communications adviser; and John Sasso, who is currently the Kerry campaign's liaison to the Democratic National Committee.

Lockhart said he was unaware of any major changes.

"The campaign has a strong team in place, and a strategy to win this election," he said.

Cutter was even more blunt. "That's not going to happen," she said. "This is nothing new. Mary Beth is still campaign manager and will continue to be."

Lockhart was traveling Tuesday to meet with Kerry in Nantucket, Massachusetts, and then fly to Nashville, Tennessee, with the senator later in the day.

While he originally had planned to maintain a low-key schedule during the Republican National Convention, Kerry now is expected to hold a small rally in Nashville on Tuesday evening. He's scheduled to address members of the American Legion on Wednesday at their national convention.

On Thursday, he's also stopping off in Boston, Massachusetts, for more private meetings with top staff before he joins his vice-presidential pick John Edwards for a midnight rally in Ohio.

When asked if there is going to be any announcement about staff changes, Cutter replied, "Not to my knowledge. And if there is, it does not mean any shake-up."

Cutter pointed to the addition of Lockhart and Joel Johnson earlier this month as evidence that the campaign is "beefing up." Cutter said that adding people during the home-stretch of the campaign is commonplace.

At the same time, however, top campaign officials acknowledge that major problems have arisen since Kerry accepted his party's nomination in Boston last month. The swift boat ads have done serious damage, reflected in both polls and fund raising, and aides have complained of a lack of overall strategy.

A senior campaign source said "this will pass" and that there is an effort to "quell" the concerns being raised by some fund-raisers in New York and California. The campaign is sharing "data" with those parties complaining about problems and laying out the plan for where the campaign goes from here.

Sen. Ted Kennedy has been calling Democrats over the past several days to discuss their concerns about the campaign's message, according to one source.

When Lockhart came on board, the expectation was that he would travel with Kerry. Now, the decision has been made to leave him at headquarters overseeing what one senior campaign official called "a sometimes confused and short-sighted" communications strategy.

Cutter, recently taken off the road to return to campaign headquarters, likely will return to her role as traveling press secretary, sources said, although some campaign officials and advisers are exploring other options.

Johnson and another former Clinton adviser, Doug Sosnik, also have taken on major roles in recent weeks. Johnson directs a "rapid response" operation and works closely with Lockhart, while Sosnik works on broader strategic issues.

There was talk of putting Sosnik on the road with Kerry. Several campaign officials and advisers say they recognize the need to have an "adult" traveling with the candidate -- as one put it, "someone who can tell him to shut up, or change something if and when that is necessary" and quickly deal with other strategic issues from the road.

"The 'sky is falling' people are out of line, but we do need to fix some things," said one senior campaign official.

But Sosnik's wife recently had a baby and the plans envision him working at headquarters and perhaps traveling in the campaign's final weeks. So they are still exploring options for a traveling senior staffer. Johnson is an option because of his longtime experience in the Senate, but Lockhart is among those who prefer him where he is, according to several sources.

Some of this buzz may have been fueled yesterday when Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said he was stepping down from working for a 527 group. Some viewed it as a step toward joining the campaign. Several inside and adviser sources, however, say they know of no such plan.

So-called 527s are independent, tax-exempt groups that are allowed to accept unlimited donations to fund ads. They have been at the focus of the presidential campaign in recent weeks because of commercials criticizing Kerry's record during the Vietnam War.

CNN's Candy Crowley, John King, Deirdre Walsh, Judy Woodruff and John Mercurio contributed to this report

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