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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 February, 2004, 14:08 GMT
Campaign column: Kerry in driving seat

By Tom Carver
BBC correspondent in Washington

John Kerry
Kerry's camp is beginning to turn its attention to Bush
The Democrats have had their best week in three years.

While George W Bush has been struggling to explain where he was during the Vietnam War and where Saddam Hussein's weapons went to, the Democratic road show has rolled south.

This primary season is looking less and less like an election and more like an orchestrated display of Democratic values.

The attractions have included a real general, a clean cut lawyer and a feisty former governor.

And all of them have been acting increasingly like a chorus line to the star turn, a grizzled, decorated Vietnam veteran who has pulled men from the waters of the Mekong Delta under enemy fire.

Principles

There has been none of the below-the-belt character slurs and back-stabbing that normally takes place in primaries. The party has not been split asunder by ideological differences.

In fact the whole event is in danger of descending into a cauldron of civility and general agreement.

Six weeks ago John Kerry was not even on the radar in Tennessee.

On Tuesday he won by 14 points from his nearest rival.

Tennesseans even think he is very principled. They say he stands up for what he believes in more than the others.

And he barely visited the state.

'Liberal'

This is a major shift from last week's primaries which showed that Democrats thought John Edwards and Wesley Clark were more principled than Mr Kerry.

This is all very flattering for the senator from Massachusetts, but it will not help him much in a campaign against George Bush.

Part of the value of a primary is that it gets a frontrunner in shape for the big event.

John Kerry has been in public office for 25 years - that gives the Republicans a lot of ammunition
John Kerry's weakness, which Republicans are certain to exploit, is that he can be portrayed as a 'Massachusetts liberal'.

This means more than just being a liberal from the second state in the nation.

To millions of Americans, 'Massachusetts liberal' is slang for someone who is white, wealthy, out-of-touch with middle America, weak on defence and a supporter of liberal social policies.

Mr Kerry's camp says it is ready for this line of attack.

Strategy

But John Kerry has been in public office for 25 years.

That gives the Republicans a lot of ammunition.

They can show pictures of him when he was deputy to Michael Dukakis, one of the most hapless Democratic politicians.

They can wheel out his opposition to the first Gulf War and his support for gun control and gay rights.

John Kerry can neutralise this to some degree by his illustrious service in Vietnam.

John Kerry with wife Teresa
Kerry's record in Vietnam is playing well with voters
But the one group which was not very impressed by him in Tennessee and Virginia was conservative Democrats, which suggests that the 'Massachusetts liberal' tag is not going away.

It will be interesting to see when the Democrats fold up their road show and declare Mr Kerry the winner.

The party hierarchy would like to do it as soon as possible to conserve money for the general election. But some Democratic strategists think they should keep it going for a while longer.

The campaign is providing lots of positive publicity and air time. And as long as there are other competitors in the race, the Republicans cannot unleash their firepower on the nominee.

Previous campaign columns:

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