Normally, you might expect a politician who had just blitzed through his party's Presidential primaries to give his travel agent a call. Time to book a quickie Caribbean getaway, kick back, and lose that chronic campaign cough, right?
Not in these days of the perpetual campaign. True, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry has the Democratic nomination sewn up, thanks to a near sweep in the Super Tuesday round of contests held on Mar. 2. His last real opponent, North Carolina Senator John Edwards, pulled out a day later. Still, the last thing Kerry can do is relax, because President Bush's reelection campaign is going on the offensive. On Mar. 4, the Bush- Cheney team kicked off a big national cable and TV ad campaign in the first round of general-election sparring.
So rather than reach for his bags and sunscreen, Kerry will immediately have to get to work energizing Democrats by touring battleground states. He also has to begin the tricky business of picking a running mate. And, if that weren't enough, Kerry must work the phones furiously, hitting up donors in an urgent bid to replenish his war chest and pay off a $6.4 million personal loan.
Once he gets a cash infusion, some hard slogging is in store. Kerry will need to spend furiously on a media strategy that, by making the economy its focus, provides some cover as the bruising next round of Campaign '04 gets going. The days of parrying genteel intraparty rivals such as Edwards are about to give way to the much tougher job of fending off attacks by President George W. Bush and his $200 million campaign machine. Kerry will face a harsh assault on his voting record, values, and veracity. "Kerry got the nomination by steering past the wreckage of an imploding Howard Dean," says Bush adviser Ralph Reed. "He hasn't really been tested."
Indeed, Kerry is still benefiting from his romp in the primaries. When paired against Bush and Dick Cheney in a poll conducted by CBS News, a hypothetical Kerry-Edwards ticket came out on top, 50% to 42%. Republicans, however, believe the poll numbers are fluff. Convinced that Kerry is the beneficiary of media coverage of the Dems' Bush-bashing primary duel, White House officials plan a multipronged assault to bring Kerry down to earth. "They're whistling Hail to the Chief at the Kerry campaign," says former GOP National Chairman Richard N. Bond. "But they have no idea what's coming at them."
CHEERLEADER-IN-CHIEF. Phase 1 kicked off on Mar. 4 with a $4.5 million media buy in 17 to 20 contested states. The ads, which depict the President as a strong wartime leader, will be shown on cable TV and spot broadcast outlets, with much of the emphasis going to sports shows popular with male viewers. The overriding theme is consistent with White House über-pol Karl Rove's desire to use wartime patriotism as a club against nay-saying Democrats. "By taking the battle to terrorists," says Bush's campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, "[Bush] has made Americans safer at home."
The Bush barrage will perk up the President's poll ratings -- but only up to a point. "What works for Bush is the perception that he's resolute," says independent pollster Thomas H. Riehle. "But he has never convinced people concerned about the economy that he really cares about this issue." To combat that perception, the Bush campaign is laying on dozens of heartland economic forums that cast the President as cheerleader-in-chief for a healing economy.
Phase 2 of the offensive will be an attack on Kerry's record. As a four-term senator, he has cast thousands of votes that are being sifted by GOP opposition researchers. By harping on Kerry's inconsistent stands on the war, the USA Patriot Act, and even President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, Bush hopes to tag his foe as a waffler who lacks a firm compass. "Voters don't know much about Kerry," says the GOP's Bond. "But when you point out that he's a serial flip-flopper, it becomes a character issue."
The climactic phase will be an assault on the Democrat's claim to be a middle-class champion within the cultural mainstream. Exhibit A will be a recent National Journal analysis, which finds that Kerry was the most liberal U.S. senator in 2003. In addition, Republicans will make Kerry's balancing act on gay rights a wedge issue in Midwestern swing states and with culturally conservative Latinos. "This is an emotional issue," says GOP pollster Bill McInturff. "On balance, it's going to be bad for Democrats."
Kerry realizes that if these charges define him, he's in trouble. So he's taking defensive measures. Kerry will step up his attacks of Bushonomics and what he sees as a failed unilateral foreign policy, and will try to make news during the spring with policy speeches and, perhaps, a high-profile foreign trip.
FRIENDS WITH MONEY. He will also turn up the afterburners on his fund-raising. The campaign may shift top rainmaker Louis B. Susman, a Chicago investment banker with Citigroup (C ), to Washington to oversee an aggressive dialing-for-dollars operation. Kerry can also get aid in the form of ads funded by so-called 527 committees -- organizations set up by liberal groups to bundle unlimited soft-money donations for "educational" media and get-out-the-vote activities.
One such group, MoveOn.org, spent $7.5 million this year on anti-Bush ads and will soon air $2 million in new spots. Others, underwritten by multimillion-dollar pledges from liberal financiers such as George Soros, hope to collect $95 million for a get-out-the-vote drive to boost the Demo-cratic ticket. Independent spending by such shadow organizations "is not trivial, and it's probably a big reason why the Bush campaign is going on the air now," says Kenneth Goldstein, a University of Wisconsin political scientist who tracks campaign advertising.
Of course, megabucks alone won't decide a race that is shaping up as another close contest between two revved-up party cores. Yes, Team Bush is happy to go up against a Northeastern liberal the likes of Kerry. But even the most partisan of Bush loyalists harbors slivers of doubt. "My nightmare is $3 [per gallon] gasoline," frets one. Another fears "uncontrolled events in Iraq." And everyone in Bushdom worries that lagging hiring by employers could let Kerry turn a campaign they want to hinge on terrorism and personal security into a debate over economic insecurity. "What still needs to improve?" asks one adviser. "The economy. Growth." And that, of course, means the jobs the President insists are just around the corner.
By Lee Walczak, with Richard S. Dunham and Paula Dwyer, in Washington