So far, Sen. John Kerry has won only a fraction of the 2,162 delegates he needs to take the Democratic presidential nomination, but Republicans have already placed him in their sights as the party's most likely opponent in November. The label is already set: He is a Kennedy-Dukakis liberal from Massachusetts.
And unlike the seven Democratic candidates, who have burned through millions of dollars battling each other, the Bush reelection team is sitting on a growing mountain of campaign cash, ready to be deployed against President Bush's opponent in the form of ads, direct mail, and other methods.
On a basic level, just about any of the Democratic contenders would face the same story line from the Republicans: that the nominee is a liberal, out of touch with the American mainstream. But if some Democrats are feeling relieved that Howard Dean's nomination prospects have dropped - based on the view that he wasn't presidential enough - they would still have their work cut out for them with Kerry.
Kerry may project more "presidentialness" - with the towering height, the stentorian voice, the measured demeanor - than Dean, but he also comes with the longest paper trail of any of the candidates, including 19 years as a senator, with votes on the full range of national issues. Dean, who served as Vermont governor for 11 years, did not take positions on many national issues.
"What the Republicans are going to do is whittle him down to size as a Dukakis liberal," says a senior GOP Senate aide, referring to the former Massachusetts governor and Democratic presidential nominee in 1988. "Kerry's going to have to be able to fend that off before it all sticks."
Clearly, the aide says, Kerry is "formidable" in personal biography and stature, with a compelling military record - including three Purple Hearts - from his Vietnam War days. But, he adds, "you can be sure, at this very moment, the RNC [Republican National Committee] has mined every vote that John Kerry has cast in the US Senate since 1985. The playbook is there."
A week ago, RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie began to go after Kerry, calling him "out of sync" on security issues. The RNC website has long been cataloging information about various Democrats, and has posted multiple documents demonstrating what Republicans see as Kerry's poor legislative record on intelligence and defense.
One veteran political operative, who has amassed a 700-page file on Kerry, cites the senator's votes against major weapons systems in the 1980s and '90s as a point of vulnerability. Kerry also voted against larger intelligence budgets, he says, "which doesn't look good post-9/11." He says Kerry could also face problems over his ties to the telecommunications industry and to various Washington-based lobbying groups. Kerry, with his populist campaign message, bills himself as a champion in the fight against special interests.
Part of the challenge Kerry would face, analysts say, is how to put his entire record in perspective. It would be easy for the Republicans to take Kerry statements and votes out of context, and paint a picture of him that Democrats would find unfair. The Democrats' challenge would be to counter that effectively. By some measures - such as the ranking system of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) - Kerry is among the most liberal members of the Senate. Over the course of his Senate career, Kerry gets a 92 percent rating from the ADA, while Edward Kennedy (D), the senior senator from Massachusetts, has a 90 percent career rating. Kerry can rebut this analysis by noting that he voted for welfare reform, budget caps, education reform, and the 2002 Iraq war resolution.
"Probably the best [Republican] argument against Kerry would seek to depict him as a man of contradiction and flip flops, who is all things to all people, who is really mixed up on foreign policy and defense, [and] appears to be a grand statesman and strategist, when in fact his views go whichever way the wind blows," says Arnold Steinberg, a Republican strategist in California.
Of all the Democrats running for the nomination, Mr. Steinberg sees North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as the biggest threat, foremost because he is from the South, which has produced the last two Democratic presidents.
"It is uncertain [to] what extent a Southerner could bring the South back into the Democratic fold," says Steinberg. But Edwards is "glib, bright, good on his feet. I think in many ways he's more of a charmer than any other.... He has an engaging personal appeal. I think that when George W. Bush comes into a room he connects with people. Edwards can connect with those people."
Many political observers see a Kerry-Edwards ticket as a possibility, rather than seeing Edwards at the top of the marquee, because Kerry is older, more experienced in politics and national issues, and projects more gravitas. Many Republicans are quick to add that they expect a close race no matter who the nominee is - noting the bright-line distinctions on the issues.
"Senator John Kerry, like all the Democrats, would like to roll back progress that's been made on the economy, economic recovery, tax cuts for all Americans and for small businesses, which create an enormous number of jobs in our country ..., [and the] war on terrorism, the war in Iraq, homeland security," says Gentry Collins, the deputy chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa "There are very stark contrasts. Ultimately the American people, especially the people of Iowa, will view the leadership of President Bush as essential to moving our country forward."
• Staff writers Alexandra Marks and Sara B. Miller contributed to this report.