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News Analysis: Sprinter now faces a marathon
By TODD S. PURDUM (New York Times)
Updated: 2004-03-03 14:34

In just six weeks, John Kerry has made short work of every dogged Democratic rival, rebounding from political near-death to vibrant life as his party's all-but-official nominee.

But as Ronald Reagan delighted in reminding the Democrats 20 years ago when he became the last Republican president elected to a second term: "You ain't seen nothin' yet."

Propelled by the twin tides of electability and inevitability since his upset victory in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19, Mr. Kerry now stands atop a Democratic Party that is energized and unified in its opposition to President Bush, who is no better than tied with or trailing Mr. Kerry in the latest polls. The process devised by Democratic officials to produce an early nominee has worked as intended.

But the real test is just beginning.

Tomorrow, the Bush campaign will begin spending the first of its tens of millions of dollars on campaign advertising aimed at shaping the race: first celebrating Mr. Bush, then reintroducing Mr. Kerry, the Massachusetts senator, to the nation in the most unflattering light possible.

Mr. Kerry has been tested, but perhaps not as much as he would have been in a longer primary season. His appeal to independents and Republicans remains largely unproved. And he now faces an eight-month general election campaign against a president with all the powers of incumbency at his command.

"It's not rocket science," said John Weaver, who learned what it was like to run against Mr. Bush as the political director for Senator John McCain's presidential campaign four years ago. "There'll now be a `definition race' and the Bush-Cheney forces will try to define Kerry as quickly and negatively as possible in the coming months, and his challenge is to not only fight that off, at least to a draw, but at the same time in doing so, define himself."

In war and politics, Mr. Kerry has proved himself in past battles and he professed to be ready for the fray. "Before us lie long months of effort and of challenge and we understand that," he said in victory last night. "We have no illusions about the Republican attack machine and what our opponents have done in the past and what they may try to do in the future. But I know that together we are equal to this task. I am a fighter."

Still, Mr. Kerry's last opponent, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, ran a campaign that was almost entirely upbeat, with only the mildest kind of attacks in recent days, yet he seemed to rankle Mr. Kerry toward the end.

By contrast, Mr. Bush has shown himself to be a sharp, disciplined, resourceful political infighter when his back is against the wall. "No more Mr. Nice Guy" may now be the phrase of the day.

Already, the Kerry and Bush camps are exchanging daily dueling e-mail messages. Yesterday, the Bush campaign's morning "Kerry Line" celebrated the first anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security by attacking Mr. Kerry for joining Senate Democrats in initially resisting Mr. Bush's efforts to alter Civil Service rules in the proposed department. The Kerry campaign countered with a statement from former Senator Max Cleland of Georgia, who was defeated for re-election in the bitter aftermath of wrangling over the issue, saying: "George Bush is all hat and no cattle on the issue of homeland security."

Last night, Mr. Kerry attacked Mr. Bush as "the great divider" for proposing to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage.

"We say that he has no right to misuse the most precious document in our history in an effort to divide this nation and distract us from our goals," Mr. Kerry said in his most pointed language on the subject by far. "We resoundingly reject the politics of fear and distortion."

Earlier, Mr. Kerry left the campaign trail and returned to the Senate to cast an unshrinking vote in favor of extending a 10-year ban on assault weapons that expires this year, and to accuse Mr. Bush of "walking away" from his 2000 campaign pledge to support its extension.

He may be from Massachusetts, Mr. Kerry seemed to be all but shouting, but Michael S. Dukakis he is not.

With his main rivals now finished, Mr. Kerry can devote himself to raising the money he badly needs to compete with Mr. Bush. Because he chose, like Mr. Bush, not to accept matching federal campaign money, he will not be bound by spending or contribution limits. Independent advocacy groups and the Democratic Party are also prepared to spend millions of dollars against Mr. Bush.

For now, the Democrats' spirited primary contest and Mr. Kerry's almost weekly victories have put the Republicans on the defensive. Vice President Dick Cheney, who has emerged in some recent polls as a potential drag on his party's ticket and who rarely gives interviews, appeared yesterday on all three cable news networks, his comments interspersed with coverage of Mr. Kerry's big day.

Today and tomorrow, Mr. Bush will be in California, scene of the biggest delegate prize yesterday. He will be raising more money toward his goal of $175 million - hardly the preferred springtime posture of a "war president," as he recently described himself.

But Mr. Kerry can no longer count on the automatic platform provided by contested primaries to keep his name in the headlines. Mr. Bush now has a single, big target in Mr. Kerry and can focus on him in the long months leading to the Democratic convention in Boston in July.

"I don't think the frame has been set for this election at all," said Don Sipple, a veteran Republican consultant who worked for Bob Dole in his 1996 presidential campaign. "A natural agenda is in the minds of the electorate, and I think the first one who kind of connects with that will benefit from it.

"The economy is going to be an issue, and so is the war," Mr. Sipple continued. "The picture's murky on both peace and prosperity, which suggests you're going into a very tight contest with a lot of twists and turns. I think the administration will have a period of a good three weeks or so and the data will show it, and then the Democrats will, and it'll all be within the margin."

For all Mr. Kerry's early success, his biggest vulnerability may be that so few voters really know him. In his two decades in the Senate, his reserved personality has not always worn well with colleagues and party leaders. He now faces scrutiny, second-guessing and investigations that might make the primaries look like a picnic.

Three days before the 10 Democratic contests of Super Tuesday, a national poll by the National Annenberg Election Survey at the University of Pennsylvania found that just over a third of registered voters who said they intended to participate believed they had learned enough about the candidates to make an informed choice. A like percentage expressed a similar view in the 21 states that have yet to vote.
Starting now, Mr. Kerry must help fill in the blanks. Mr. Bush will be only too ready to do so.

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