Democrats' kid-glove campaign

With criticism muted, the party is on pace for a record in reaching a fast and friendly unity.

With Sen. John Kerry now appearing all but invincible in his quest for the Democratic nomination, this primary battle is shaping up as one of the quickest - and least divisive - in modern history.

Since his first surprise victory in Iowa, less than a month ago, Senator Kerry has seemed almost to coast - quickly racking up a string of 12 wins across every region of the country, without ever facing much of a challenge or coming under serious attack from his rivals.

Sen. John Edwards and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who are vowing to fight on through Super Tuesday, are not running negative ads against the Massachusetts senator - or even drawing particularly pointed contrasts. Senator Edwards has explicitly defined himself as a "positive" candidate. And even Dr. Dean's criticisms are muted, focusing on Kerry's ties to lobbyists rather than emphasizing distinctions on issues.

The lack of conflict is highly unusual for an out party, which tends to be far less united than the party in the White House and often faces deep ideological splits during the primary season. Analysts attribute it to a number of factors, from the frontloaded calendar - which has greatly magnified the impact of Kerry's momentum from contest to contest and left his opponents little time to recover - to dwindling resources among Kerry's rivals.

It also reflects a consensus among all the campaigns that this year, more than ever, intraparty attacks are likely to backfire. With Democratic voters focused on beating President Bush, most say they do not want to see the candidates tearing each other apart, but instead focusing their fire on the White House - a factor that has undoubtedly worked to Kerry's benefit.

"There have been relatively few stresses and strains in this campaign," admits a Kerry adviser. "We're emerging as an extremely united Democratic party."

Most strategists agree that the one caustic battle of the campaign - between Dean and Rep. Richard Gephardt in Iowa - proved deeply damaging to both men's candidacies, allowing both Kerry and Edwards to surge. And since then, Kerry's strength has certainly made it harder for his rivals to attack him. Exit polls show that he is drawing support from nearly every demographic within the party - across gender, racial, and regional lines - leaving no real opening for his rivals to create any kind of wedge.

Kerry's wins this week in Virginia and Tennessee put to rest concerns about his ability to compete in the South, robbing his two Southern rivals, Edwards and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, of even that constituency. General Clark dropped out of the race Wednesday after a disappointing third place in both contests.

Edwards and Dean are also limited in their ability to draw clear ideological differences with Kerry. Significantly, the top-tier candidates who most closely hewed to the conservative or liberal ends of the spectrum - Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Representative Gephardt - are out of the race. Among those who remain, the differences are more stylistic and biographical than substantive.

"The big differences between candidates on issues aren't there," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

Yet the reluctance - or inability - of Edwards and Dean to attack Kerry has left many observers wondering why they're bothering to stay in the race at all.

Certainly, there's always the possibility, however unlikely, that Kerry will stumble, creating an opening for one of his rivals.

And both the Edwards and Dean campaigns argue that narrowing the race to a two-man contest could make it more competitive, encouraging all the voters who are not Kerry supporters to get behind them as the sole "Kerry alternative."

But others regard this as wishful thinking - given that Kerry's overall favorability ratings are far higher than Edwards's or Dean's. "One on one [they're] likely to really get clobbered," says Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist and former Gephardt adviser.

In many ways, Mr. Carrick says, the race has entered a "kabuki theater" phase, with the non-Kerry campaigns still going through the motions, despite the fact that the competition is essentially over.

Indeed, many believe Edwards and Dean may have other goals in mind - such as maintaining their visibility on the national stage or laying the groundwork for future runs. They may also be hoping to boost their chances as vice presidential candidates. Either scenario would limit their ability to attack Kerry: Nominees tend not to pick running mates who've criticized them, and the voters might not forgive them, either, particularly if the criticism were to damage Kerry over the long run.

At the same time, the ongoing presence of both men in a generally friendly contest could help the party. Although a longer contest could drain campaign coffers, the relative lack of competition makes this less likely - and the high cost of advertising in most Super Tuesday states is likely to keep most campaigns, including Kerry's, off the airwaves after next week's contest in Wisconsin.

Moreover, in the past few weeks, as media attention has focused on the Democratic race, the party's approval ratings have shot up - while President Bush's have sagged. Recent polls have shown Kerry beating Bush in a head-to-head matchup. To many, it's a formula Democrats would want to keep going as long as possible.

"At this point it's the Republicans who should hope the primary season ends, not the Democrats - because the messages are being largely focused on Bush," says Professor Jamieson.

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