By Lee Walczak
So now that he has blown his convention boost and fallen behind George W. Bush in both national polls and key battleground states, Democrat John Kerry has emerged in fighting trim. The man from Massachusetts has shaken up his staff, started using surrogates to poke at George W. Bush's now-you-see-me, now-you-don't Air National Guard record, and has torn up his stump speech to sharpen the contrast with the President.
Kerry is now trying out a new-and-improved slogan in a nod to Dems who contend that he needs a simple, cutting phrase to put the blocks to Bush. After huddling with, like, 500 of his top advisers, here it is: Are you ready? Brace yourself now.... "W stands for wrong."
Uh, O.K. I can just see the ever-growing Kerry high-command burning the midnight oil over the birth of this stunning, serrated slogan. I imagine the conversation went something like this...
Senior Strategist Bob Shrum: "O.K., O.K., everyone listen up. After some pretty extensive focus-group testing in Missouri and Louisiana, we have decided to go with the "W is" thing. So we have the organ music, now we need some words."
Campaign Manager Mary Beth Cahill: "Where are the issues people? They have the campaign's only dictionary...."
Senior Issues Adviser Sarah Bianchi: "All present and accounted for, chief. We have sent this around to our 47 outside advisory committees, and here's our preliminary cut:"
W is for wacky -- Gets the war thing in. (Groans from the group.)
O.K., try this one then: W is for wastrel -- A two-fer on budget and enviro stuff. Wrong-headed? No? O.K., we'll move on.
Howard Dean sent this one in -- W is for warmonger. O.K., O.K., too strong. Ditto, I guess, for warlord, warbonnet, warpath, etc., right?
W is for wayward. Negative? Thought so....
W is for wuss. Alright, but some of the younger staffers thought it might resonate with the Net and youth-vote outreach efforts. Guess wanker and weasel are no good then, either.
W is for witless. Too harsh, huh? Oh well, but Zell Miller liked it a few months ago when we ran it by him. O.K., next....
Alright, this one comes from the Yale chapter of ROTC Conscientious Objectors for Kerry: W is for whiffenpoof. (Loud jeers, sound of shoes being tossed.) O.K. I guess we can discard that one, too.
W is for wanton disregard? Violates the one-word rule, I know.
W is for warped? Hmmm, next....
W is for water boy? Some people thought this would spotlight the prominence of Cheney, but I guess not.
W is for weimaraner? You know, a fierce breed of German short-haired sporting dogs? Could offend the dog-owner people, I guess, so we pass on that one, too.
W is for weirdo? Nah, the guy is so antibohemian it hurts. Next!
W is for Weltschmerz? Weltanshauung? Weisenheimer? Yeah, I know nobody knows exactly what they mean except German-speaking voters. Moving on, then...
W is for wheeler-dealer? (Guffaws from crowd, sound of pencils being snapped.) Hello -- anybody breathing out there? Work with me, here....
W is for whipper-snapper? Guess not. The guy's approaching 60. Willful? Nope.
W is for whirligig? What do you mean what does that mean? It means one who constantly whirls and shifts course. Uh -- I see what you mean, a little too close to home. O.K., next!
W is for whitewash? W is for wildebeest? W is for wild hare? Wiretap? Witch-hunt? Wolfsbane? No, no, no....
Shrum: People, people, it's 1:25 a.m. Let's take a 15-minute coffee break here to clear our heads.
(Turning to whisper to newly signed adviser Paul Begala: Paulie -- call Clinton in New York Presbyterian -- the anesthesia ought to be wearing off about now -- and tell him we need to patch him into the main conference room. We need some friggin' inspiration here. I'm beginning to think W is for What the Hell do we do now?)
Walczak is BusinessWeek's Washington bureau chief