That was evident from the vote tally on Super Tuesday, Mar. 2, as Massachusetts Senator John Kerry skated easily to victory in the nine-state Democratic primary for the Presidential nomination. Only Georgia, where his last credible opponent, North Carolina Senator John Edwards, had hoped to win decisively, failed to fall in line, based on early returns. Everywhere else, the message was clear. The Democrats have placed all their chips on Kerry.
No matter that Edwards seemed to connect better with ordinary voters, or that his railing against jobs exported to foreign shores by rapacious CEOs drew the most applause, or that his roots in Milltown USA seemed to resonate with audiences. The North Carolinian is said to be preparing to withdraw from the race on Mar. 3. The name of one newly formed Democratic political action committee says it all: The Committee to Re-defeat the President.
THINGS WILL GET UGLY. Never in modern history have the nominations of both parties been wrapped up so early in the election year. Even President George W. Bush felt compelled to mark the occasion by calling Kerry to congratulate him on his victory.
As the second act opens in the 2004 election drama, the Bush campaign prepared to unveil a multi-state barrage of TV ads extolling the President's record as one of being a steady and strong defender of America in the war against terrorism, a "compassionate conservative," and an advocate of economic growth. November may be eight months away, but the attacks from the Democrats during the primaries have depressed Bush's approval ratings to the lowest point of his Presidency, around 50%.
Few inside the two campaigns have any illusions. Before November, things will get ugly. Expect Bush surrogates to portray Kerry as a turncoat in the Vietnam War, a friend of "Hanoi Jane" Fonda, and a pretender to heroism. In turn, the Kerry forces will paint Bush as a toady to the rich, an irresponsible manager of the federal treasury, and a looter of the Social Security trust fund.
NO RIFTS. Kerry's next task, in addition to raising money to counter the President's massive war chest, will be filling the time before the summer conventions with focused attacks on Bush. Kerry may be cash-strapped at the moment. But he can at least count on one advantage that Democrats usually lack at this stage: The party has no rifts to mend. As Edwards summed up his job -- and Kerry's -- Tuesday night: "more jobs, better health care, a cleaner environment, a safer world."
As he reveled in his victories, Kerry test-marketed his message for the coming months, pledging, for example, a new energy policy that will create 500,000 jobs so that "no one in uniform will ever be held hostage for oil in the Mideast." And, "My campaign will be about replacing fear with security." That theme will be applied to everything from terrorist threats to jobs, pensions, and health care.
Campaign 2004 has entered its second and ultimate phase. Now, the gloves come off. Magnusson is correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau