John Kerry: Already On The GOP Firing Line

His flip-flops, cozy ties with lobbyists, and new populism will make tempting targets

Propelled by five big wins in the Feb. 3 round of Democratic primaries and caucuses, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry is steadily advancing on his party's nomination. But even as Kerry gathers momentum, he hears the sound of not-so-distant thunder. That's because President Bush's megabuck reelection campaign is starting to train its big guns his way.

Kerry, of course, must still mop up entrenched resistance, especially from an energized Senator John Edwards (N.C.), who posted an impressive win in South Carolina, and a still-lurking Howard Dean. That means weeks of close combat -- and perhaps some setbacks -- stand between Kerry and the nomination.

Republicans aren't likely to wait until all the delegates have been counted, however. Before the emerging image of Kerry as a populist fighter for working folks takes hold, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie and GOP surrogates are trying to paint him as a "Taxachusetts" pol whose values are outside the mainstream. "Kerry is the son of Dukakis," charges senior GOP operative Ron Kaufman.

"He's a legitimate Massachusetts liberal, which means he backs policies that only the most left-wing side of the Democratic Party agrees with -- leaving the center-right to us."

IN TOUCH. The Republicans may have a slog on their hands, though. A new Gallup poll released on Feb. 3 found that when respondents were asked whether Bush or Kerry was most in touch with "problems ordinary Americans face," Kerry -- like Bush the product of wealth, Yale, and the secret Skull & Bones society -- came out on top, 56% to 33%.

Most of the heavy fire against Kerry will commence this spring, when Bush taps a $200 million war chest. The Republicans will rail about Kerry's fondness for tax hikes and for expensive business mandates that will crush a recovering economy. And they'll make the case that the Kerry who lambastes "powerful special interests" is a poseur whose campaign is bankrolled by lobbyists.

Indeed, Kerry's benefactors include execs at Goldman Sachs (GS ), Citigroup (C ), and AT&T Wireless Services (AWE ). He has also pulled in plenty of donations from members of his brother Cameron's law firm, Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky & Popeo, which represents many telecom interests.

And according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign-reform group, Kerry received more contributions from lobbyists in 2003 (though September) than any other senator -- some $226,450.

On the stump, the senator boasts that he has never taken money from political action committees. But he doesn't need PAC money because he has tapped an organization called the Citizen Soldier Fund, a vehicle for amassing unlimited gifts from unions and lobbyists representing the insurance, banking, and telecom industries. Kerry set up this "shadow committee" -- a so-called 527 -- despite his support for the McCain-Feingold bill, which banned direct donations of soft money.

Kerry has also done favors for wireless outfits and other interests, ranging from arranging entrée with regulators to backing friendly amendments. In some cases, the favors were followed by "bundled" contributions. For instance, Kerry has often sponsored amendments for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Assn., only to receive checks from lawyers and lobbyists close to the trade group.

ANTI-CORPORATE FIRE. Kerry's staffers say that as a former state prosecutor, he is incorruptible and never trades influence. But the reality is that he is less of a campaign reformer than he makes himself out to be, working the system to his advantage while insisting that tougher rules are needed.

As for Kerry's new penchant for attacking "Big Oil, big drug companies, big HMOs, and Benedict Arnold CEOs," aides say that some of the anti-corporate fire will fade as he tries to appeal to upscale suburbanites. "This stuff has never been a big part of his talking points in the past," says one strategist close to the campaign. "That's mainly a reflection of the fact that Dean got so hot so early." Bottom line: Kerry has been a sometime New Democrat in the '90s, backing free trade, tech tax breaks, and limits on shareholder lawsuits, and he has left most of the CEO-bashing to fellow Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy. He may well seek a rapprochement with business after he secures the nomination.

Such a meeting of the minds could prove difficult, however, because Kerry would repeal all but a few middle-class cuts out of Bush's $3 trillion-plus in reductions. Like most of his fellow Dems, Kerry worships at the altar of former Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, insisting that "demand-side" tax breaks for moderate-income people will spur growth faster than the GOP's cuts in marginal rates. In a fall campaign against Bush, Kerry wouldn't have much time for nuances, though. Republicans will tattoo him as a tax-and-spender.

At first glance, Kerry also seems vulnerable to the charge that he is weak on defense. Republicans home in on a series of votes he cast in the '90s, which would have whacked the Pentagon budget to shift money to health care and education. Most troublesome, the senator, who now says U.S. intelligence has to be dramatically bolstered in the wake of September 11, voted in 1994 to slash $2.58 billion from spy budgets.

In 1995, Kerry did indeed vote for a seven-year freeze in defense spending in a bid to free up $34 billion. But there is a pattern to his maneuvers. He has been a persistent foe of big-ticket weapons, such as Star Wars, and favors a cheaper, more nimble, high-tech military. Kerry's efforts to rein in the CIA were a product of his Vietnam-era revulsion over politicization of intelligence data. But the fact is, he has been a vocal critic of intelligence services and shifted his focus toward enhanced intelligence-gathering after terrorists attacked the U.S. Bottom line: Kerry has a lot of explaining to do -- but has a chestful of medals to deflect some of the criticism.

The harshest attack on Kerry will come over the values divide -- his support for taxpayer-funded abortions, gay civil unions, and gun control, plus his opposition to capital punishment. That means Kerry will have to answer charges that he's on the wrong side of the culture wars. His challenge is all the more complicated since a new Massachusetts court ruling that gay and lesbian partners must be granted the same right to marriage as heterosexual couples. Although Kerry backs only civil unions, not gay marriage, Republicans will make this a huge wedge issue -- conjuring up lurid images of a "Massachusetts lifestyle" to make the hair stand up on blue-collar necks. Says RNC member Kaufman about a possible Kerry-Edwards ticket: "We get to run against a Massachusetts liberal and an ambulance-chasing lawyer. I like our odds."

Such assaults are nothing compared with what Kerry will face if he blows away remaining contenders on Mega Tuesday, the big Mar. 2 round of primaries. Right now, though, the lanky warrior has other concerns on his mind -- such as fighting off weariness, staying on message, and hustling up money for media buys. The guns of the GOP will have to wait.

By Lee Walczak, with Richard S. Dunham and Lorraine Woellert, in Washington

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