He's only just begun

John Kerry's nomination quest may be sealed, but the true tests lie before him: Attacks from a GOP apparatus with unlimited resources and the unfettered scrutiny of the national media.

By Josh Benson

Published February 11, 2004 3:42PM (EST)

There were no hugs and no high-fives in the John Kerry camp when his victory here was projected on CNN. An aide in the filing room merely mustered a sarcastic cheer. Winning is getting oh so routine, and the polls had predicted this massive victory for days, anyway. When he addressed a rollicking crowd of well over 2,000 students at George Mason University, though, Kerry found something new to tout in a victory speech that has become rote: "Americans are voting for change," he said. "East and West; North -- and now -- in the South."

For sure, by dominating two Southern contests Tuesday night in Virginia and Tennessee, where he won by respective margins of 25 and 14 points, Kerry essentially obliterated the last remaining argument against his ability to appeal to Democrats, moving the campaign into a phase in which he is going to get what he's been spoiling for: a general election fight with President George W. Bush.

The primary, of course, will continue: John Edwards, who finished second in both states, will press on in hopes of setting up the one-on-one matchup with Kerry. Howard Dean, who has yet to win a state but is still urged on by a true-believing core of supporters, will also continue to contest the nomination. But Wesley Clark, who finished third in both states, brought his short but eventful campaign to an end, saying to supporters in Memphis that "we may have lost this battle today, but ... we're not going to lose the battle for America's future."

Kerry's victories Tuesday are likely to change a dynamic that, over the last month, has been an extremely fortuitous one for him: Dean and Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt destroyed each other in Iowa, enabling Kerry to fight his way to a stunning victory there. That result instantly made him the front-runner of a field that collectively renounced negative campaigning, sparing Kerry the attacks that had sent Dean into a tailspin. Meanwhile, his momentum, driven by a ubiquitous "Comeback Kerry" story line in the media, carried him to wins in 10 of the next 12 contests, with Edwards, Clark and Dean each grabbing a big enough share of the leftover vote to keep any one of them from offering a serious challenge. The capper was the pair of wins tonight, moving him closer than ever to the nomination.

That may turn out to have been the easy part. Now, having consolidated his chances for the nomination, Kerry faces the prospect of both unceasing assaults from a Bush-reelection apparatus with almost unlimited resources and tougher treatment from the national press.

He already seems to be bracing himself: In a private phone conversation with Clark about an hour after his victory speech, Kerry was overheard telling the general, "I know what these guys are going to do ... these guys are scary."

It's not just that Kerry's going to face unprecedented criticism -- it's that everyone is going to be paying attention. As long as the primary was competitive, Kerry and his opponents were able to go after the administration with relative impunity. But in a head-to-head matchup with Bush -- as it started to be even this week -- Kerry is getting hit back by Republicans for liberalism, hypocrisy and dirty campaigning, among other things.

"We've dominated the whole time there's been a competitive primary," said Virginia Democratic Party communications director Laura Bland. "George Bush is at rock bottom of his approval ratings, in part because of the pounding he's taken from all our candidates. If you have this quick consolidation and the primary's over, a window on people's interest closes, and you guys [in the media] stop writing about us and go back to writing about whatever Bush is saying."

For now, Kerry has done well to parry many of the Republican attacks. He effectively preempted some of them simply by predicting the "same old tired lines of attack," and effectively surrounded himself with a shield of fellow combat veterans to prevent being caricatured as a weak-kneed Massachusetts liberal.

He has also benefited from continuing controversy about Bush's service in the National Guard during the Vietnam War, which Kerry discussed at a press conference in Richmond on Sunday. On Tuesday, he seemed happy to let the controversy continue with its own momentum, telling reporters that he had said all he was going to say on the subject.

It will be interesting to watch how well Kerry deals with the attention, but one thing that is certain is that he'll no longer have the option of ducking issues, as he has tried to do with such controversies as the new court decision in Massachusetts permitting gay marriage. Pressed for his position by reporters at a press conference yesterday in a terminal at the Memphis airport, Kerry said that his position in favor of civil unions was "very clear," but that it also depended on what the Massachusetts Legislature does in reaction to the new ruling.

There was one other question during that media availability that Kerry avoided. It came from a French television reporter who had traveled with the campaign for days, and who had even spoken French with Kerry in an off-the-record moment on the campaign plane earlier that day and was hoping to capture a quick utterance on camera. Kerry is fluent, having spent time growing up in Switzerland and France, an offense for which he was accused by a nameless Bush administration official of "look[ing] French," according to the New York Times. Here was Kerry's answer: "I want to just deal if I can -- here -- with -- can we do that?" He didn't speak to the French crew again.

Meanwhile, the part of this campaign in which the media coverage focused on Kerry's winning streak appears to be over. John Solomon, the Associated Press' ace campaign finance reporter, came out with three potentially damaging stories over the last week (on the Big Dig, speaking fees, and federal home loan bank nominees) about contributions accepted by Kerry from interests that sounded distinctly like the sort that could be called "special."

"I have fought against the way money is involved in politics all of my public life," Kerry told reporters in an airport terminal in Memphis, one of several times over the last few days in which he was asked about the charges that he accepted contributions and speaking honoraria from individuals and companies that stood to benefit.

And today's Washington Post has a big story, picked up from the Web site PoliticsNJ.com, about disgraced New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli's role in raising money for a political action committee that helped Kerry by running attack ads against Dean in Iowa.

Then there's the self-fulfilling horse race stuff, where pundits talk to pundits for an audience of pundits, which also has a dragging effect on Kerry's momentum. Shortly after tonight's results were announced -- remember, Kerry won -- there was CNN's Jeff Greenfield asking whether that was actually a good thing: "Is it really in his interest to become a general election candidate now?" he asked.

Perhaps an even better example was the conclusion Dean campaign manager-turned television analyst Joe Trippi came to later in the evening on CNBC's "Hardball" about Kerry's twin lopsided victories: "The momentum's running out ... and now we're going to start talking about his flaws."

Oh, and about that primary: There are now four candidates remaining besides Kerry. Of the four, two are setting up for a dramatic last stand. (Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich, who are in the race to prove a point, will probably stay in until the end of the primaries.)

Edwards has at least the potential to make things somewhat complicated. He has sought out a "one-on-one" matchup with Kerry since Iowa, and his supporters here feel that he's now done well enough to achieve that. "Clearly this is now a two-person race between Edwards and Kerry," said Virginia House Minority Leader Frank Hall. "From my very first conversation with [him] some eight months ago to my last one, two days ago, he has said he's in this thing until it's over. I believe him."

Looked at another way, however, it's easy to come to the conclusion that Edwards is either delusional about his chances or simply running to be the vice presidential candidate on a ticket headed by Kerry.

For the conspiracy-minded, there is even the whiff of collusion. Edwards, of course, is running an almost impossibly positive campaign that appeals to many Democrats but essentially precludes him from directly criticizing Kerry. And while sentiments in the Kerry camp these days about the Dean and Clark campaigns range from scornful to scathing, those feelings are strangely charitable when it comes to Edwards' efforts to prolong his fight with Kerry.

"John Edwards has run a very strong campaign," said one key Kerry supporter after the candidates' speeches tonight. "I think he's just deeply driven -- sometimes personal drive trumps strategy or logic." For now, though, Edwards will have the opportunity -- should he take it -- to point up Kerry's weaknesses by contrasting his blue-collar background with Kerry's aristocratic (French!) upbringing, and his engaging speaking style with Kerry's wooden oratory.

Then there's Dean, whose situation seems hopeless, but whose potential one last nuclear attack still scares the hell out of many of Kerry's supporters. "He says he won't do anything to harm the nominee," said Ed Kilgore, policy director at the Democratic Leadership Council who backs Kerry, "but then before he finishes the sentence he's calling Kerry a Republican and a captive of special interests."

Unlike Edwards, Dean has never pretended to be a nice candidate, and will almost certainly not feel constrained from doing whatever he can to induce a severe case of buyer's remorse among Democratic voters about Kerry.

For all of that, a win is a win, and Kerry has reason to celebrate. He won in the ostensibly hostile territory of the South, using a formula that blended red-meat attacks on Bush, progressive policy proposals and an unwavering image of strength built on support from the omnipresent fellow veterans he refers to as his "Band of Brothers." He has now won in every part of the country, and across all economic, ethnic and generational strata.

That's not a bad thing at all. And Kerry, for his part, doesn't seem in such a hurry for things to change. Asked Tuesday if he looked forward to "consolidating" the field, he said, "There's a process. I respect each state's right to make its own decision and I respect each candidate's right to make their decision ... I'm simply going to campaign from state to state and keep asking people for their votes as I am today ... I respect the process."

Josh Benson

Josh Benson is Salon's national correspondent.

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2004 Elections Howard Dean John Edwards John F. Kerry