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As Dean Surges, Will Kerry Settle to Be the Alternative?

There was a time not so long ago when almost everyone agreed that Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) was the favorite for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. [IMGCAP(1)]

But as the Democratic hopefuls gather in New Mexico for a nationally televised debate this evening, Kerry’s status in the race has changed dramatically.

While the Senator still looks like a president, sounds like a president and has put together the type of national, well-funded effort that wins nominations, the emergence of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean as the new Democratic frontrunner has created two schools of thought about Kerry’s prospects.

Some argue that the Massachusetts Senator still offers Democratic primary voters and caucus attendees the best total package, and he has the ability to stay in the race until he becomes “the alternative” to Dean. Others, however, say the Vermonter’s success has turned the front-loaded calendar against Kerry and highlighted the Senator’s continuing weaknesses.

At this point, it’s not clear which camp is correct.

Political insiders who continue to envision Kerry as the eventual Democratic nominee point to the campaign’s total throw-weight — the candidate’s appeal and stature, military background, first two quarters of fundraising and high-quality campaign organization.

According to this view, Kerry has the most formidable national campaign, and in a lengthy contest that ultimately boils down to two candidates, the Massachusetts Senator has the staying power to be one of them. While some hopefuls can be eliminated from the race by a poor showing in one early state (Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt and Dean in Iowa, or North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in South Carolina), Kerry allegedly can take a punch and keep on fighting.

But other observers emphasize Kerry’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities, not his strengths. They note, quite convincingly, that while the Senator looks the part of president, he continues to search for a compelling message that is more than merely his résumé.

Kerry talks about his background, views, “courage” and his alleged electability, but compared to Dean or Gephardt, he doesn’t have enough of a rationale for his campaign. While Dean is the combative outsider and conscience of the party, Kerry has been painted by the media into a corner as the ultimate insider, the guy who wants to have it both ways on Iraq. (Ironically, Dean is often accused of flip-flopping, but so far without any damage to his campaign.)

While the calendar was once expected to benefit the Bay State Democrat, since New Hampshire was his “firewall,” January 2004 has instead become a minefield for his campaign.

Democrats who once speculated about Kerry’s ability to wrap up the nomination before Feb. 1 by upsetting Gephardt in the Iowa caucuses and winning the Granite State primary convincingly now argue about whether Kerry could survive a third-place finish behind Gephardt and Dean in the caucuses and a second-place finish behind Dean in New Hampshire.

Could Kerry head into February without a win if his two major opponents for the nomination both already have one under their belts? Would the race already have boiled down to Gephardt versus Dean at that point?

On the other hand, if Dean finishes first in both Iowa and New Hampshire, won’t the former governor build up so much momentum that he will be unstoppable (even if Gephardt falls quickly from the contest)? And if Democrats who oppose Dean gravitate around a single candidate, why would they necessarily pick Kerry, who would seem already to have had his chance to seize his party’s nomination?

Kerry continues to emphasize his military record and national security credentials, possibly to improve his showing among Democratic men. He may ultimately be correct to do so, since some campaign consultants believe that Democratic voters will place increasing importance on leadership and the candidate’s credibility as commander-in-chief as the nominating process closes in on the first actual contests.

But for the moment, the Massachusetts Democrat’s emphasis on his war record, his Congressional testimony against the Vietnam War and his repeated use of the word “courage” in his campaign (e.g., his American Courage Tour) doesn’t appear to be a compelling message against Dean, who has led the charge against President Bush’s Iraq policy and can claim to be “courageous” in taking on the White House.

Kerry backers insist that Dean lacks the necessary foreign policy experience to be president. But it’s not clear that voters have changed their views about the qualifications that White House hopefuls need since they elected then-Gov. Jimmy Carter, then-Gov. Bill Clinton or then-Gov. George W. Bush as commander-in-chief.

Ten months ago, Kerry benefited from the widely held view that he had the single best chance to win the Democratic nomination. Now, with Dean building momentum — and likely to continue to do so with a wave of TV advertising in states with February contests and expected strong third quarter fundraising — Kerry needs to build some momentum of his own, or just survive to emerge as “the alternative” to Dean.

Rothenberg Political Report