John Kerry (search) was triumphantly accepting the title of front-runner after his victory in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary Tuesday, expecting to jump so far ahead of the pack next week that he'll soon be running against President Bush.

Kerry was preferred over Howard Dean (search) by virtually every voter group, even anti-war liberals who Dean had counted on most. Kerry can now count on a new wave of support and donations and a growing lead in most polls around the country. In Massachusetts Wednesday, he painted a picture of determined confidence as he looked ahead to the seven states that vote next Tuesday.

However, as the race for the Democratic presidential nomination goes national, Kerry's back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire have positioned him straight in the line of Republican fire.

Several GOP strategists and operatives hanging around Kerry’s New Hampshire headquarters Tuesday night acknowledged that they had been looking forward to running against Howard Dean, saying they were “kinda bummed, because it would have been fun running against him.” In fact, Republicans had been salivating for the past year at the prospect of a Dean nomination, concluding that Dean’s record, positions, flip-flops and gaffes would cost Democrats seats in Congress.

Vietnam veteran Kerry presents Republicans with different challenges than the anti-war/pro-civil unions Dean, but these Republicans said Tuesday that they have no less enthusiasm for facing Kerry. The GOP has been researching Kerry’s 18-year Senate record (and much more), and should be getting some help from a media geared up to take Kerry to task in the coming weeks as well.

Dean May Be Done

Historically, no candidate who has failed to take first or second place in New Hampshire has gone on to win the nomination. Dean’s double-digit second place finish was far behind Kerry and shocked the campaign, which had been expecting and predicting a much closer race. Dean did not meet those expectations and retreated to Vermont Wednesday to regroup.

Remember that New Hampshire was not just Kerry’s must-win state, but Dean’s as well. When the results were in Tuesday night, Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi (search) could only say that Dean is prepared for a long campaign battle and that Kerry will get banged up by the increased scrutiny in the coming days. That’s light years away from their hope and strategy of nine days ago to win Iowa and New Hampshire and run the table.

And on Wednesday, Trippi announced he was stepping down as campaign manager after Dean announced Wednesday that longtime Al Gore adviser Roy Neel would take a larger role in day-to-day operations in the campaign.

Dean’s post-New Hampshire strategy shows the trouble he’s facing. He is leaning away from both South Carolina and Missouri, saying South Carolina is a GOP state in general elections and wanting to avoid an expensive showdown with Kerry in Missouri. Still eyeing New Mexico and Arizona, Dean put an optimistic face on his struggling campaign, which now faces a cash crunch, growing doubts and a costly national race.  

Dean continues to argue that he will fight on and that only he can beat President Bush, but he also seemed to be adopting an attitude Wednesday of being content with second place.

Big Labor Blues

Dean’s disappointing showing in New Hampshire also may have cost him his labor support. Kerry partisans from California to Washington, D.C., have been agitating in the unions ever since Big Labor failed to deliver a victory for Dick Gephardt in Iowa. Kerry immediately began courting the 21 international unions that had endorsed Gephardt and the two that had thrown their support behind Dean, the AFSCME and the SEIU.

The Kerry camp is trying to convince the AFL-CIO that their split between Gephardt and Dean has further weakened Big Labor’s already waning influence, and the time has come to unite behind Kerry for the big fight in the fall. Dean is counting on money from the SEIU and AFSCME to keep his campaign alive, but Kerry’s large margin over Dean in New Hampshire will only increase the pressure on Dean’s labor support.

Kerry has an ace in the hole here in fellow Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, a kingmaker in the AFL-CIO who has accepted the task of recruiting the labor unions to the Kerry campaign. Kennedy has already campaigned aggressively for Kerry. Kerry’s campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill is Kennedy's former chief of staff and dozens of Kennedy’s “Massachusetts political mafia” are working, advising and effectively running the Kerry campaign. Kerry aides envision Kennedy applying some exquisite pressure on the unions still with Dean. In fact, the reason why Kennedy was not at Kerry’s side claiming victory in New Hampshire was because he was in Washington putting some “Lion of the Senate” pressure on big Democratic donors and labor.

Race Goes National

Next week's races span the country and seven states. The big prizes are Missouri, Arizona and South Carolina. Kerry leads the polls in Missouri as well as Arizona; Edwards leads in South Carolina; New Mexico, with fewer delegates, may be Dean's best hope; and Oklahoma was strong for Clark before Kerry's back-to-back wins.

Of the seven Feb. 3 states, South Carolina, the “first-in-the-South” primary, is considered a gauge of regional and African-American support. John Edwards, the U.S. senator from North Carolina who was born in South Carolina, has repeatedly said that the Palmetto State is a must-win for him. Edwards has a lead in the South Carolina polls, and Edwards campaign manager Nick Baldick has said there is “no way” any other Democrat is going to beat Edwards in his own backyard. With a victory in the South and his strong showings in Northern states, Edwards will argue that he is the best national candidate.

Kerry, however, is targeting his efforts on Missouri. It has the most delegates of the Feb. 3 states, it’s a general election battleground, and a bellwether of national political sentiment. A Kerry win in Missouri coupled with his Iowa and New Hampshire wins would allow him to say he has national appeal and momentum. Missouri, however, is a very expensive state to run ads in and Kerry is taking a big financial risk by betting it all there.

Wesley Clark, who squeaked out a distant third in New Hampshire, is from Arkansas and is hoping to challenge Edwards in the South. Clark aides will argue that with Kerry and Edwards both senators and Dean struggling, Clark is the only viable “outsider.”

“Outsider,” however, is the role Edwards will claim when the contest likely narrows to a Kerry-Edwards race after Feb. 3.  Kerry will play up his experience and military service, while Edwards, who does not have many Democratic insiders with him, will cast himself as the “real change” for the little guy. Edwards could easily exploit Kerry’s numerous vulnerabilities and Senate votes, but to get tough would be a flip-flop from his pledge of political pacifism against fellow Democrats. Kerry will also probably hesitate from throwing the first punch, particularly at Edwards who has been steadfastly “positive” in his campaigning.

What happens if they play nice?

Many will suggest that they are looking at a Kerry-Edwards ticket. The candidates will deny it, of course. But, the two bring together Kerry’s North with Edwards’ South, Kerry’s rich roots with Edwards’ humble beginnings, Kerry’s war hero with Edwards' self-described champion of the underdog during his time as a trial lawyer.

But right now the focus is on Kerry, who now faces the scrutiny that goes with being a front-runner — questions and criticisms about his decades in Washington, his flip-flops and inconsistencies, and charges of Northeastern elitism. Dean aides say Kerry will collapse under that pressure, but if he can stand up to it, and if one of the other candidates does not defeat Kerry in one or more of the major states next week — his rivals know he will be very hard to catch.

Carl Cameron currently serves as Fox News Channel's (FNC) Washington-based chief political correspondent. He joined FNC in 1996 as a correspondent.