Cash and Kerry

March 04, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Sen. John Kerry's early clearing of the field for the Democratic presidential nomination, achieved with a minimum of party division, presents him with both opportunities and pitfalls en route to the national convention in July.

First, the decision of Sen. John Edwards to bow out rather than plod on through the four Southern state primaries Tuesday and beyond saves Mr. Kerry from expending a lot of campaign money and energy in the weeks ahead.

That decision also dismisses the peril of bitterness creeping into a prolonged campaign that might have wounded both Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards. It also keeps alive the possibility of a Kerry-Edwards ticket, a notion of considerable popularity among Democratic voters taken with Mr. Edwards' upbeat campaign style.

With unusual party unity fashioned by the deep and abiding desire among Democrats to defeat President Bush in November, Mr. Kerry already starts the long march to the party convention on an extremely high note.

After a campaign that began so falteringly that Mr. Kerry had to shake up his staff and switch to a long-shot bid to win the Iowa caucuses, he heads toward the convention as a comeback candidate with strong momentum built on victories in 27 of 30 delegate-selecting contests.

Surprisingly, public opinion polls show the Massachusetts senator narrowly leading Mr. Bush, who has encountered some rough sledding over continuing occupation woes in Iraq, questions about his National Guard service, huge federal deficit increases and a sluggish economy.

The decision of the president's campaign team to launch an equally early assault on the presumptive Democratic nominee indicates considerable concern and a determination to shift the focus of the re-election effort from defense of Mr. Bush's record to a more searching examination of Mr. Kerry's performance in his 19 years in the Senate.

It is an old axiom of attack politics that a candidate must define his opponent in unfavorable terms before that candidate is able to define himself, and that clearly is the intent of the Bush campaign. Through the swift primary season, Mr. Kerry essentially escaped that sort of scrutiny from his Democratic opponents, who sniped here and there but never challenged such things as his patriotism and his liberalism.

Now he likely will encounter such assaults from the Republicans, who have already resurrected Mr. Kerry's leadership of Vietnam Veterans Against the War upon his return from his decorated combat service in that conflict. Support from his Vietnam comrades was an effective element in winning the nomination and will be needed down the road in countering this issue.

While front-loading the primary calendar worked to Mr. Kerry's advantage in nailing down the nomination early, it leaves him now with a slog to the party convention in Boston in late July. During that period, he must compete with a Bush campaign that has more than $100 million on hand to pound him with television advertising, not to mention the free publicity afforded an incumbent president.

In 1996, Republican nominee Bob Dole faced the same quandary against President Bill Clinton and could never overcome the handicap. This time, Mr. Kerry must hope that the party unity engendered by widespread Democratic anger toward Mr. Bush and his policies will trigger the campaign contributions he will need to keep him competitive between now and late July. His own personal wealth and that of his heiress wife probably won't be enough.

In retrospect, it was wise that Mr. Kerry decided to follow former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's lead in opting out of the federal campaign subsidy system that puts a lid of about $45 million on campaign funds. Now, with no such limit on him, he has at least a chance to stay close to Mr. Bush in the hugely expensive "air war" of competing TV ads that looms ahead.

After the party conventions, each nominee is scheduled to accept the nearly $75 million available under the subsidy system for the general election, so Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush will then be on even footing until November. The challenge for Mr. Kerry is to survive the expected Bush onslaught through the spring to get to that point.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column usually appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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