Kerry in front, race goes national

The senator has money and momentum on his side - but in a topsy-turvy race, no one's lead is certain.

After all the remarkable twists of the 2004 presidential race so far, no self-respecting pundit would dare make firm predictions about whom the Democrats will nominate.

But looking ahead to the seven primaries and caucuses of Feb. 3, scattered about the country, all of Sen. John Kerry's opponents face several hard facts:

• The roaring momentum the Massachusetts senator takes away from winning decisively in Iowa and New Hampshire gives him major free media attention that deprives the other campaigns of oxygen.

• All the campaigns are low on funds, but by winning the first two contests, Kerry can make the most credible case to donors that a fresh infusion of cash will go toward a winning cause. Kerry is the only candidate, along with Howard Dean, to opt out of the federal matching system and so can raise and spend unlimited money during primary season. He could also, potentially, write himself another large check.

• Democrats' stronger-than-usual desire to select a nominee early - so the party can aim fully at President Bush - could make the Kerry train harder to stop. In the first two contests, many Democratic voters said they wanted to back the winner, and so far, Kerry is the only one wearing that label.

The big question hanging over Kerry is how his style - seen by some as patrician and aloof - will sell in the South, Midwest, and West. He "has the chance to put it away next week," says analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "He's able to talk about message. All the other candidates are having to try to sound optimistic, and talk about how they can still win. They're in a much more defensive posture."

Analysts say Kerry has done a good job on two things: creating an aura that he's the most electable candidate; and effectively borrowing the "outsider change" arguments and populist economics of the other candidates.

But Kerry has many identities - Northeastern liberal, Vietnam War hero, Vietnam War protester, wealthy Bostonian. They will all be in play as the candidates - and, if Kerry gets the nod, President Bush - fight to craft his image.

The nature of the nomination race now shifts from "retail" politics, where voters get to shake candidates' hands and take their measure in person, to "wholesale" politics, where candidates race from state to state, not venturing far from airports, and presenting themselves in paid advertisements and free news coverage.

Missouri could be the most important state next Tuesday. Of the seven states with Feb. 3 contests, it will send the most delegates, 74, to the convention this summer. Missouri is also a major presidential battleground in the general election, and so appeal there is vital. All the campaigns are just starting operations there, since native son Dick Gephardt dropped out of the race.

Kerry will almost certainly come under greater scrutiny - and attack - in coming days. And he still faces rivals such as former Vermont Governor Dean, who could have enough money and supporters to remain competitive for some time. Indeed, Dean signaled the potential for a long battle when he referred in his concession speech to the money he's received from small donors as "how we're going to keep going and going and going."

"It's not done," says independent pollster John Zogby. "Generally you would say, anybody who puts together two impressive victories in Iowa and New Hampshire ought to sail through," and if Kerry wins the majority of contests next week, that may happen. Although Kerry''s "the real front-runner, he's not going into friendly turf."

Certainly, Kerry is moving quickly to make up ground in the Feb. 3 states - South Carolina, Missouri, Arizona, Delaware, Oklahoma, North Dakota, and New Mexico - and to capitalize on his expected bounce coming out of New Hampshire. His campaign went up with ads in all seven states on Jan. 28, and Kerry has said he'll campaign in person in all seven as well.

"We are going to compete everywhere," says Kerry spokesman Michael Meehan. "We're not conceding any state to any one of our opponents." He notes that Kerry will spend time this week in South Carolina - where Sen. John Edwards and retired Gen. Wesley Clark have campaigned steadily. By contrast, Kerry's rivals are likely to take more targeted approaches, in an effort to make efficient use of war chests and come up with some wins to slow Kerry's momentum.

Senator Edwards, who finished fourth, slightly behind General Clark, will focus on South Carolina, a state he has said he must win, though he'll also spend some time in Oklahoma and Missouri, among other states.

Clark plans to travel to Oklahoma, South Carolina, Arizona, and New Mexico. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who finished fifth in New Hampshire, is hoping to win Delaware, and is targeting Oklahoma as well. Dean's travel was not yet set, though he headed first to Vermont. But his campaign indicated he'd visit Arizona and New Mexico - as well as several states with primaries after Feb. 3, such as Michigan and Wisconsin. Dean's campaign says he's raised $1.5 million in the past week alone, and will have the resources to continue for some time.

While Dean's second-place finish was clearly a disappointment, aides note that it did represent something of a turnaround, given the freefall he had found himself in coming out of his third-place Iowa showing and his infamously exuberant concession speech.

"This isn't the finish that we'd like - we worked very hard and wanted to win New Hampshire - but we feel very proud of our showing," says Dorie Clark, Dean's New Hampshire spokeswoman. "We had a bit of a deficit coming down after Iowa, and we were able to make up some of that ground."

But Dean has been hurt by a growing perception that he is "unelectable." According to exit polls in New Hampshire, 4 in 10 voters said Dean does not have a presidential temperament - and of those, 54 percent voted for Kerry. Of the 1 in 5 voters who cited an ability to defeat Bush as the most important quality, Kerry won 62 percent of votes.

Half of all voters said they were "angry" at the Bush administration, but significantly, they were as likely to back Kerry as Dean. Among the more than 4 in 10 primary voters who strongly disapproved of the war in Iraq, Kerry also won roughly the same number of votes as Dean.

Staff writer Alexandra Marks contributed to this report.

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