Kerry Struggling to Find a Theme, Democrats Fear By ADAM NAGOURNEY ASHINGTON, May 1 — Two months after Senator John Kerry effectively captured the Democratic presidential nomination, party officials say his campaign is being regularly outmaneuvered by the White House as it struggles to find a focus and to make the transition from the primaries to the fight with President Bush. Even while expressing confidence about Mr. Kerry's prospects, Democratic Party officials said they were concerned about what they described as his trouble in settling on a defining theme for his candidacy, the pace of his advertising and his progress in setting up field organizations in battleground states. "George Bush has had three of the worst months of his presidency, but they are stuck and they've got to move past this moment," said Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. While Ms. Brazile said she thought Mr. Kerry had the time, the political skill and the money to defeat what many Democrats described as a highly vulnerable president, she said, "This is a very crucial moment in the campaign." Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, one of Mr. Kerry's rivals for the nomination and a potential running mate, has told aides over the past two weeks that he is concerned by signs of trouble in Mr. Kerry's campaign, advisers said. Mr. Edwards disputed that characterization of his views in an interview on Saturday, saying he thought Mr. Kerry was running a "strong campaign." In Ohio, the state that strategists for Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush view as perhaps the most critical battleground, Mr. Kerry has yet to hire a state director or open a campaign office. His operation is relying so far on the work of committees working independent of the Kerry campaign. By contrast, Mr. Bush appointed an Ohio state director on Jan. 1, and opened a headquarters in Columbus, staffed by 13 people, three months ago, his aides said. The Kerry campaign has yet to open its own full-fledged campaign "war room" — staffed with researchers, tacticians and press aides — to deal with Republican attacks and systematically marshal surrogates to make Mr. Kerry's case. In one example of how this has hindered the operation, Mr. Kerry's aides fielded complaints from donors and party leaders this week when the candidate went on television to respond, in a contentious interview, to questions about his anti-Vietnam activities 30 years ago. Mr. Bush's campaign opened its war room in early March, and it has pumped out a steady barrage of attacks and information about Mr. Kerry's record that Democrats said had blocked Mr. Kerry's attempt to make the election a referendum on Mr. Bush. Mr. Kerry has yet to unveil a long-promised biographical advertisement highlighting his war record that Democrats urged him to broadcast as soon as possible as a rebuttal to Mr. Bush's $50 million crush of advertisements. Democrats outside the campaign blamed the ouster of a senior media adviser in March for the delay. Mr. Kerry's advisers denied that and said the biography advertisement would start next week, saying that had always been their plan. For many Democrats, Mr. Kerry's single biggest difficulty was what they described as his continuing search for a defining theme for his candidacy — typically one of the most urgent tasks of any presidential candidate. Last week, after completing the most in-depth poll of his campaign, Mr. Kerry unveiled yet another theme for his candidacy: "Together, we can build a stronger America." It was, by the count of one aide, the sixth message Mr. Kerry has rolled out since he announced his candidacy nearly 18 months ago. "We need to be honest with ourselves: Our candidate is not one who's good with a 30-second sound bite," said Representative Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee, co-chairman of Mr. Kerry's campaign. "He is very thoughtful and it takes him a while to say things." Mr. Kerry's aides and some Democrats outside the campaign described the concerns as overstated, and said that any drift that might be taking place now would have little meaning next fall. They said Mr. Kerry had used the spring to raise money and that a war room and offices in Ohio and other battleground states would open shortly. And they noted that independent organizations had picked up a lot of the slack so far with big expenditures on television advertising and get-out-the-vote operations. "This campaign has got six months to go," said Steve Elmendorf, a deputy campaign manager. "He goes out daily and talks about his vision for the country and his vision for the future. You have to take the long view here. You're not going to win every day, and you're not going to win every week." Mr. Elmendorf added, "I know people are feeling anxious timing-wise, but you have to build a national campaign." Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, said Mr. Kerry was "doing better than he's perceived to be doing," adding, "He's starting to get his sea legs." "I'm not worried — I really am not," Mr. Biden said. "Democrats are so, so, so hungry to defeat Bush that they get so up when things look up and get so down when things look down." But other Democrats, even while cheered by polls showing that Mr. Bush appeared vulnerable, noted that Mr. Bush was moving aggressively to discredit Mr. Kerry now so that he would be diminished as a candidate by the fall campaign. They said that Mr. Kerry needed to fight that. "What is the message today — where is the message discipline today?" said one senior Democratic official, who refused to speak by name about the campaign. "Why don't we have people in these 18 states?" Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, a former Democratic chairman, said that Mr. Kerry could defeat Mr. Bush if he began laying out a serious case now. He said Mr. Kerry could not wait until the fall. "If he hasn't established himself as a plausible alternative, people will have tuned out," Mr. Rendell said. The growing pains reflect in part an organization that, aside from the two senior media consultants — Bob Shrum and Mike Donilon — has little experience in running presidential campaigns. Mr. Kerry's campaign has been hindered, some aides said, by a turnover in staff members and internal bickering, albeit nowhere near the level that occurred in the campaign last fall. At a recent meeting of senior staff members, Democrats said, Mr. Kerry's aides became entangled in a lengthy debate over what might seem to be a less than urgent issue: whether they should send a Democratic operative to Bush rallies dressed as Pinocchio, a chicken or a mule, to illustrate various lines of attacks Democrats want to use against Mr. Bush. (They say they want to portray him as a liar, a draft avoider and stubborn.) But more fundamentally, it underlines what many Democrats have long said has been Mr. Kerry's continuing difficulty this year to present a unifying theme for his candidacy. In the primaries, Mr. Kerry's biography was his message, as he argued that his experience as a Vietnam veteran made him the strongest opponent to Mr. Bush. That argument for his election evaporated the moment the race ended, Democrats said, and Mr. Kerry has yet to adjust to the new electoral terrain. Mr. Kerry's advisers disputed that, saying that Mr. Kerry was laying out a clear case for his candidacy as he traveled across the country. "Anybody who thinks that John Kerry doesn't have a message needs to get out of Washington, D.C.," said Stephanie Cutter, a senior aide, adding, "America is fully open and receptive to the message of putting jobs first and getting America back on track." Mr. Bush began talking about himself as a "compassionate conservative" in his announcement of his candidacy 18 months before Election Day 2000. This time, Democrats said, Mr. Bush appears to have settled again on an early theme. "Bush's message is clear," said Carter Eskew, who was a senior adviser to Mr. Gore. "His message is a steady leader and Kerry's a flip-flopper." Mr. Kerry's predicament has been complicated by the fact that there was no lull after the primary battle. Instead, he faced the twin tasks of building a general election campaign apparatus and dealing with a White House that had spent a year raising money, investigating Mr. Kerry's record and hiring staff members to prepare for this moment. The result, some Democrats said, has often been a mismatch. In an episode this week that distressed some of Mr. Kerry's strongest supporters, Mr. Kerry was put in a position where he appeared to be defending his Vietnam War record, in a dispute over whether he had thrown away medals in an antiwar protest. "This Vietnam thing — I'm lost at how you can lose that," said one Democratic member of Congress, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "You go to Vietnam, you're carrying around shrapnel, and you're seen as somehow not telling the truth. I am scratching my head in bewilderment." Ms. Cutter, though, scoffed at the suggestion that the Kerry campaign was being outmaneuvered by the White House. "Haven't we run around them too?" Ms. Cutter said. "For every story that George Bush is in, John Kerry is in it, too. When you're running against the power of the White House and all that money, where we are is a pretty impressive feat. "And we're just starting."