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Treating Kerry With Kid Gloves Can Only Boost Momentum

Has a frontrunner at the height of the race for a party’s presidential nomination ever had an easier two weeks than John F. Kerry since the Iowa caucuses last month?

Since Iowa, three of the remaining major candidates in the race -- Sens. John Edwards and Joe Lieberman and retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark -- have chosen to raise virtually no argument against Kerry’s possible nomination or even establish any sharp contrasts with him on issues.

The other remaining major candidate, fallen frontrunner Howard Dean, has tried to frame a case against Kerry, though in such a hyperbolic fashion that he has undercut his own effectiveness.

Lieberman’s caution is easy to understand; after his fifth-place finish in New Hampshire and weak showings in polls of the states that vote Tuesday, he probably recognizes that he has at least one foot already out the door.

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But in their reluctance to engage the Massachusetts senator, Edwards and Clark have seasoned Democrats scratching their heads. The two treated Kerry so gently at last week’s debate in Greenville that even Kerry’s aides were dumbfounded; some worried that the candidate would be angry with them for pressing him so hard during the debate preparation over the questions they had expected from the other contenders. The passive performance left some neutral observers equally perplexed.

“I was shocked,” one senior South Carolina Democrat said after the debate. “It’s either slow Kerry down now, or this thing could be over on Tuesday.”

Indeed, one of the clearest lessons of the last two weeks is that unless voters are given a good reason to abandon the frontrunner, in most places most of them will flow toward him.

No one raised a consistent argument against Kerry in New Hampshire, and the momentum he established in the Iowa caucuses carried him to an easy victory in the first primary. Apart from Dean, none of the candidates has squared off with Kerry over the last week and -- surprise! -- he is leading in almost all of the seven states that will vote Tuesday.

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A pattern may be developing.

Probably because he stood so recently where Kerry does now, Dean was first to recognize the writing on the wall. After trying during the week between Iowa and New Hampshire to rehabilitate his image, Dean has emerged with an indictment charging that Kerry is ineffective (passing few bills in Congress), inconsistent and unprincipled (switching his views on such issues as education or the Iraq war depending on shifts in public opinion) and hypocritical (railing at special interests while accepting campaign contributions from them).

That’s a picture with enough plausibility to potentially threaten Kerry, but it’s not clear if Dean retains enough personal credibility to paint it. And, characteristically, the former Vermont governor has hurt himself by presenting his case in the most extreme terms: He made it far easier for Kerry to rebut his attack by describing the senator Saturday as a “Republican” -- surely not the first description most voters will attach to a man who once served as Michael S. Dukakis’ lieutenant governor.

Dean, at least, is offering voters a reason to reconsider the rush toward Kerry. Edwards can’t say that much. Neither can Clark, apart from a weird interlude in New Hampshire in which he criticized Kerry for leaving the military after Vietnam.

What would explain such meek behavior?

One theory is that both men, but especially Edwards, may still hope to snare the vice presidential nod if they lose out on the big job. If that’s the case, they have every incentive not to antagonize the man now most likely to pick the second spot on the ticket. But Clark and Edwards insist that they don’t want the understudy’s role. Many believe Edwards has boxed himself in by arguing that he’s the “positive” alternative in a field full of bickering Democrats. To the extent Clark has echoed that argument, he’s constrained too.

Yet it hardly qualifies as negative campaigning to inform voters about legitimate distinctions on issues between the candidates. And for Edwards, accentuating the positive has become a diminishing asset since Kerry supplanted Dean as the leader. Taking the high road offered an attractive contrast to Dean, who rarely went a day without strafing someone; but with Kerry also avoiding conflict, there’s no bad cop that Edwards can use to define himself as the good cop.

Aides to Clark and Edwards explain the candidates’ reticence mostly by saying that it’s too early to target Kerry. The Iowa result -- when Kerry and Edwards surged, while Dean and Rep. Dick Gephardt savaged each other -- demonstrated again that when two contenders clash in a crowded field, the winners are often the candidates who stay on the sideline.

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Even more important, each campaign worries that challenging Kerry might drive down their own candidate’s favorability ratings and threaten him in the state he considers a must-win Tuesday: Edwards in South Carolina and Clark in Oklahoma.

In ordinary circumstances, those are reasonable arguments. Yet the effect of delay could permit Kerry to build so much momentum that he is unstoppable. Even if they survive Tuesday, Edwards and Clark will have difficulty sustaining their campaigns if they can’t win a week later in Tennessee, and the latest poll already shows Kerry well ahead there.

Slowly, Clark and Edwards seem to have recognized the urgency of their situations; Edwards this weekend notably escalated his criticism of Kerry for supporting the North American Free Trade Agreement, and Clark gibed him over comments suggesting skepticism about affirmative action. But both men will need sharper arguments -- and Dean more precise ones -- if they are to reverse the direction of this race.

Democratic voters are on the verge of marrying John Kerry. Anyone who wants to stop the ceremony is probably well-advised to speak now or forever hold his peace.

Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times’ website at www.latimes.com/brownstein.


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