WASHINGTON - Super Tuesday marked the end to major combat for the Democratic nomination and also a beginning - to perhaps the longest- ever general election campaign.
Sen. John Kerry emerged from the contested nomination fight faster and in better shape than any Democrat in recent memory. "A Cinderella primary" season, as a Republican strategist enviously described it yesterday.
But the Massachusetts senator has little time to savor that impressive performance. President Bush and his Republican allies are already counterattacking, and the next few months could well frame the choice that voters face in November.
Kerry, in a forceful victory speech last night, said he has "no illusions about the Republican attack machine." But "I am a fighter," he assured cheering supporters at a celebration a few blocks from the Capitol. "For more than 30 years, I've been on the battle lines ... of the struggle for fairness and for mainstream American values."
In just six weeks, Kerry demolished primary foes, enhancing his image along the way while avoiding serious political damage.
Sen. John Edwards, his last Democratic challenger, lauded Kerry's "strong, powerful campaign," which left his party unusually unified and energized for the drive to oust Bush. Recent test match-ups show that Kerry would defeat Bush if the election were held now.
"Kerry's in great shape. He's come out of this with a clear sense that he's a strong candidate and well-positioned to take on Bush," said Bill Carrick, a senior adviser in Rep. Richard A. Gephardt's campaign. "He's a senator with stature and experience, and he has an interesting biography as a Vietnam War hero. As people got a deeper awareness of that, it's made him a stronger candidate."
But many Americans still know little about the 60-year-old Kerry. The campaign for the November election, eight long months away, will turn to a considerable extent on which side is able to paint the most convincing picture of the presumptive nominee.
"It is an axiom in politics that when you're in trouble as an incumbent, try to make the race about your opponent. I think that's what Bush's campaign will try to do," said David Axelrod, an Edwards adviser. "I also think that it will be a rough, rough campaign."
Today, the Bush campaign will unveil its first television ads, its opening shot in what will likely be a $100-million-plus commercial blitz. It figures to be the most expensive presidential ad drive ever, one that Kerry will almost certainly be unable to match dollar for dollar.
The initial ads are expected to be positive, part of an effort by the president's campaign to convince the country that it will be better off with Bush in the White House for another four years.
At the same time, strategists in both parties expect Bush eventually to copy the approach President Bill Clinton used in winning re-election. Bush will try to cast his opponent in an unflattering light, using Kerry's Senate record to portray his challenger in negative terms.
In 1996, the victim of that sort of attack was Sen. Bob Dole, whose candidacy peaked in the polls around the time he wrapped up his party's nomination. Voters knew Dole's name but not much else. A Democratic ad campaign exploited that vulnerability, linking the Republican nominee to Newt Gingrich, one of the most unpopular men in public life.
"Even though Dole had been a national figure for 25 years, nobody knew who Bob Dole was," said Scott Reed, the Dole campaign manager in 1996. "I think Kerry is about to enter that phase as he attempts to unite his party and face this onslaught from Bush."
Reed, who applied the term "Cinderella" to Kerry's primary triumph, pointed to a downside of the Democratic campaign: Kerry has not been "tested and prepared for the general election," because he never had to defend himself against sharp criticism from party rivals.
If recent attacks by Bush surrogates are any indication, the president's campaign will portray Kerry as an unreliable defender of America's security in a dangerous age.
Republicans will likely spotlight Kerry's votes to cut spending for the nation's spy agencies and against higher spending for military weaponry. They'll also argue that Kerry has been wishy-washy on other issues, such as trade and education.
Vice President Dick Cheney, in an interview with Fox News yesterday, criticized Kerry's past positions on defense and intelligence spending, as well as his vote against the first gulf war.
"Senator Kerry's record is one that I think many Americans would have trouble supporting," Cheney said.
Kerry has been careful to avoid some of the pitfalls that caused Michael S. Dukakis, the last Massachusetts Democrat nominated for president, to lose the 1988 election to Bush's father, whose campaign portrayed Dukakis as weak on crime and national defense.