Transcription – Mark Mellman Interview

Q:                    Well, backing up a little bit, it seemed like through ’03, Kerry went through a, you know, in that sort of invisible primary stage, to use that term, Kerry starts out as frontrunner, and then seems to be in a steep decline, and then has to come back.  I mean, he was behind for a while there, in late ’03.  So, I guess starting out, I mean, what’s it like to be the frontrunner at the earliest stage of the process?  You know, a year before Iowa, so to speak.

MELLMAN:      Well —

Q:                    And strategy, was that a place you were comfortable being?

MELLMAN:      You know, first of all, you — [00:07:00] I should say, you’re taxing my memory a little bit, here.  (laughter)  Because this is now years ago, so I should note that, so I may make some mistakes here.  But look, I think there are a couple of things that are true.  First of all, John Kerry was the frontrunner in the invisible primary, but being the frontrunner in that invisible primary is pretty invisible.  Which is to say, there’s not much holding up that notion.  Second, we had a discussion about whether or not we wanted that positioning or not, and at the end of the day, we decided we did because while it almost inevitably means you’re going to fall at some point because there really is nothing holding you up, per se, it enables you to get money and endorsements and support in that early going that you wouldn’t otherwise get.  And if you say, “I’m not the frontrunner,” or again, people that step forward and join Senator Kerry’s campaign that wouldn’t have done so otherwise.  There’s money that was raised that wouldn’t have been raised otherwise.  There’s coverage that we got from press that we would not otherwise have gotten.  So, at the end of the day, we decided [00:08:00] since we had the label available to us, we might as well embrace it, even knowing that there was not much to it.  In the sense that, you know, we are not dominant in terms of raising money, we are not dominant in Iowa or, you know, in — in — in New Hampshire, in terms of poll numbers.  Certainly not once Dean got going, and even before that in Iowa.  So, there really wasn’t much undergirding that notion of being the frontrunner.  But it was a good title because it helped us succeed later.

Q:                    And, what was it about Kerry that — I mean, he’d been in public life now for a couple decades, at least.  So you had known him over time.  What is it that you assumed, going into the campaign, which — or knew that was strengths he had as a candidate and maybe weaknesses he had as a candidate that made you think he would have a good shot at getting the nomination and getting work done?

MELLMAN:      Well, first of all, he’s, [00:09:00] as was evidenced in his career as a senator and now as secretary of state, he’s an extraordinarily thoughtful guy.  He understands issues, he understands how to deal with issues creatively, and that’s a tremendous talent in a candidate and in a president.  Second, he had a lot of experience of the world and of the country because he’d been around for a while and because of his activities in foreign affairs and others, he knew the territory, if you will, I think, better than anyone else, by a long shot.  Third, I think it’s important, it was important to me…  He can be a very articulate spokesperson for himself and for the causes that he espouses.  Not necessarily always in that category, but usually and often in that category.  And [00:10:00] I think he demonstrated that very clearly in the debates, for example.  I mean, I don’t think anybody has won three debates against the sitting president, ever.  John Kerry did that because of the talents that he brings to bear.  But also, you know, his background as a war hero and a war protestor, at the same time, was really brilliantly suited for the times.  In the sense that, you know, on the Democratic side of the aisle, the war was becoming very unpopular, and that sort of war protestor history was important.  But at the same time, the fact that he was a war hero was going to — made him more acceptable to the public at a time, you know, post-2000, post-September 11, 2001, when terrorism, national security issues, weighed [00:11:00] very, very heavily on people.  Now, ultimately, I would say that’s the reason that we lost, but nonetheless, he was able to compete in that arena in ways that others would not have been able to.

Q:                    Did he have weaknesses as a candidate?  And I don’t necessarily mean weaknesses that you observed because of close familiarity, but things where you thought, “There are things we’re going to have to do to shore up how people perceive and understand Senator Kerry to make him the most effective candidate possible?”

MELLMAN:      Well, you know, to put it this way, people never really looked at John Kerry as a regular guy.  Now, that’s not necessarily the most important element, but he certainly wasn’t looked at that way.  And we did some things to try and alter that perception a bit.

Q:                    Like what?

MELLMAN:      Oh, yeah, there’s a sort of famous hunting thing that we did in Iowa.  I don’t know — famous at the time, it was sort of — [00:12:00] got a lot of attention.  But went hunting in Iowa, and you know, he’s been a hunter.  I mean, he’s, you know, that is authentic to who he is, and who he was, and he was just doing it — doing it in Iowa in a way that sort of showed him as sort of a more of a regular guy, kind of, than people’s general impression.  You know, the other thing that, you know, certainly has been noted is, as I said, while on the one hand he could be an extraordinarily effective communicator, sometimes he goes on too long and twists himself into slightly difficult positions.  I don’t mean positions on the issues, but difficult rhetorical position.

And that is, you know, that was a weakness.  But again, I think for the most part, more than made up for by the times where he is tremendously articulate and effective.  [00:13:00]

Q:                    And what did you think, I mean, when you think of the other candidates for the Democratic nominations, staying with that part of the story for a while, who did you think would be the main challengers?  What were their strengths and deficiencies as candidates?  You know, strategically, what did you have to do to prevail over a field that included Dean, who was a phenomenon, and more experienced Democratic politicians like Lieberman Gephardt, and I’m sure I’m leaving somebody out — Edwards, of course, is —

MELLMAN:      Mm-hmm.

Q:                    — this new face.

MELLMAN:      Mm-hmm.

Q:                    How did you see Kerry getting through that field and emerging as the nominee?  As opposed to — Which would mean beating them as well as winning himself.

MELLMAN:      Right.  Well, you can look at that at several different levels.  I think one is sort of the map.  And again, as I said, the strategy was to win Iowa and use that [00:14:00] to springboard through the rest of the country, and that certainly proved to be a successful strategy.  In terms of the strengths and weaknesses of the other candidates, Dick Gephardt is a dear friend and longtime client of mine, so that was a very difficult situation for me…  You know, working against Dick, who I love dearly, to this day.  He had a lot of strengths.  He’d been through it before, which is underrated as a strength.  Second, he did have that regular guy image, and third, he had an economic message that was well-suited to almost every time, but particular to those times.  On the other hand, he didn’t have the foreign policy piece.  I mean, he does, in fact, but did not appear to have that foreign policy piece that [00:15:00] that Kerry had by virtue of his war service and war protesting.

Q:                    Or for any House member to have that is (inaudible)?

MELLMAN:      Well, it is, it’s hard for any senator, too, because unless, you know, you have that kind of military background, I mean, you can claim it as a senator, but you know, it’s not — nobody really pays much attention.  And in any event — and it was a time which, you know, usually those foreign affairs experiences aren’t that important but post-2001 and September 11, it — they were important to voters.  So, that was one of the weaknesses that Dick had, was the absence of that.  And, you know, he was not new.  And that is a strength in the sense that you’ve been around the block before, you have relationships, you’ve answered a million questions, you know what you’re doing here.  On the other hand, people were interested in something fresh, something new, something a little different.  [00:16:00]  As evidenced by both Dean and Kerry, and Edwards, for that matter.  Lieberman, again, had, you know, had been through it before.  He’s also a friend, honestly, of long standing and different context.  He’s never been a client, but he’s a friend.  And an enormously talented and thoughtful guy, but as became apparent, a little too conservative for the Democratic nominating process.  And a strategy that was fundamentally flawed from the get-go, in terms of emphasizing that conservatism, if you will.  It just totally misread the Democratic primary electorate, and he did have to.  I mean, he has lots of liberal credentials, progressive credentials as well, that he could have used and he didn’t.  He embraced the sort of moderate positioning, which, in the Democratic primary at that point, [00:17:00] was just totally the wrong place to be positioned.  Edwards was obviously a great talent.  We know now he has a lot of significant weaknesses, that were not necessarily evident at that point, but he’s a very talented speaker.  Was new, on the one hand, but really didn’t have the level of experience, needed.  Didn’t have the foreign policy piece, but you know, clearly was exciting to a lot of people.  And ultimately, that’s one of the reasons he ended up on the ticket.  I would say it was exactly that.