What do Louisiana and Afghanistan have in common? These days, it's James Carville.
The Democratic strategist who got Bill Clinton elected to the White House has signed on with another dark horse presidential candidate — this one in Afghanistan.
At a time when many Afghans prefer to lessen their leaders' ties to the U.S. government, working with a famous American campaign strategist may seem a risky move. And it's a race that is tougher than most, even for Carville, who has advised many international candidates.
But Afghan challenger Ashraf Ghani jokes that James Carville's roots give him keen insight. "This is a Louisiana boy who understands. If you understand New Orleans, you understand Afghanistan," Ghani laughs.
The crack about Louisiana's reputation for corruption and backroom deals makes Carville laugh, too. "Yeah, I felt a little bit at home, to be honest with you," he quips.
Jokes aside, Carville says he sees real hope for Afghanistan's future. It's a future he wants Ghani — a former finance minister and World Bank analyst — to shape.
"It's a fascinating country. It has a very distinct pull on people," Carville says.
Many things people think about Afghanistan in the United States are "just wrong," he says, adding: "Just because it has a failed president doesn't mean that it has to be a failed country."
The president he is referring to is incumbent Hamid Karzai. Karzai's popularity is plummeting because of the growing Taliban insurgency and widespread allegations of corruption in his government. Yet a poll done in May had Karzai with more than a 20-point lead over his challengers.
Ghani, on the other hand, is in third place. He trails Abdullah Abdullah, an ophthalmologist and former commander in the Northern Alliance, which fought against the Taliban when it ruled the country.
Carville's goal is to try and force the presidential election into a second round. That will happen if no candidate gets a majority of the votes cast on Aug. 20.
"Do we have our set of challenges? Of course," Carville says. "But hey, I always believe in staying optimistic. Optimistic and on the offensive, that's my motto."
Ghani is equally driven. He and Carville met in Washington this spring through mutual friends. Carville won't say whether he's being paid to advise Ghani, but the candidate claims Carville is volunteering his time. It's clear, however, that the challenge is part of the deal's attraction.
"Normally you have a range of tools from polling and focus group data to targeting and that kind of stuff, and none of that is really available in Afghanistan," Carville says. "So it was kind of refreshing to go back and do campaigns the old-fashioned way."
Ghani says some of his favorite advice from Carville is to keep his message short and on point. "He's telling me not to be an academic, which is what I need to hear."
Carville hopes to hit the campaign trail with Ghani in the coming weeks. He scoffs when asked if he worries that he'll end up in places where Western troops and the Taliban are fighting. He says risk is part of the job.
"I mean, I doubt I'll go walking around Helmand province during a Marine Corps offensive or something, but it's what I do," he says. That offensive will likely continue until the election next month.