WASHINGTON – The nomination within reach, John Kerry's (search) advisers are discussing strategies for sharpening his message, spending his money, airing TV ads and collecting a winner's share of the 538 electoral votes in November's general election.
While the candidate focuses on defeating John Edwards (search) and Howard Dean (search) to sew up the Democratic race, parts of his mushrooming political team have put President Bush firmly in their sights.
"In a cycle that has been this unpredictable, the Kerry campaign is wise to stay focused on the task at hand. But engaging the administration serves a dual purpose for Senator Kerry," said Democratic strategist Michael Feldman.
"Going toe-to-toe with President Bush is also the best way to secure the Democratic nomination," Feldman said. His former boss, Al Gore, polished off the 2000 Democratic nominating struggle while at the same time eying Bush.
With each of his 12 primary season victories, Kerry has stepped up his criticism of Bush. He calls White House foreign policy feckless, Iraq policy reckless, domestic policy ruthless and distortions of his own record baseless.
"George Bush and the Republican smear machine has begun trotting out the same old tired lines of attack," Kerry said recently, adding that he has news for Republicans: "I am not going to back down."
Thus, he's already begun to build up his general election campaign.
It starts, as with much in American politics, with money.
Kerry plans to tap $15 million in the Democratic National Committee coffers to respond to a multimillion-dollar TV ad campaign Bush is poised to unleash once Democrats select a nominee.
In addition, Democratic interest groups are raising tens of millions of dollars that can be spent to criticize Bush, though not in coordination with Kerry.
Campaign aides are just beginning to develop a budget for the period between when the nomination is settled — as early as March 2 — and the nominee officially accepts it in early August. The aides say they're acting out of caution, not overconfidence, because there won't be much time to prepare for Bush's onslaught if Kerry finishes off Dean and Edwards.
Several officials involved in the process said an early estimate is that Kerry could raise $40 million. He did not accept public financing in the primary races, freeing him from federal spending caps.
Kerry won't match Bush's $200 million pace, but aides said he and his allies can close the gap enough to compete. Just as Gore ran ads in Orlando, Tampa and West Palm Beach while Bush saturated all of Florida, Kerry's spending will have to be selective and smart, aides said.
The same officials are pouring over demographic data to begin the process of selecting battleground states.
Several states narrowly won by Gore will be hard for Kerry to defend, including Oregon, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. Bush will have to fight to retain states such as Nevada, New Hampshire, Florida, West Virginia and Ohio.
Kerry advisers are trying to determine if there are some new opportunities such as increasingly Hispanic Arizona or even Virginia, a traditionally GOP state with a Democratic governor and scores of veterans. Kerry is a decorated Vietnam veteran.
Population shifts cut against the Democratic nominee. The 21 states won by Gore will be worth 260 electoral votes in November, seven fewer than four years ago.
If he wins the nomination, one of Kerry's biggest decisions will be the choice of a running mate. Advisers say there have been no official talks, but conversations always seem to come back to Edwards of North Carolina and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, who dropped out of the race after a poor showing in Iowa last month.
Edwards would give the ticket regional diversity, but the Midwest is more important to Kerry than the GOP-dominated South.
Democratic governors from the Midwest, such as Iowa's Tom Vilsack, are also possibilities.
Republicans are already calling Kerry a tax-raising, social liberal who is soft on defense. Aides say Kerry can counter that he supported balanced budgets in Congress, opposes gay marriages, supports gun rights as a hunter, plus his military service.
His media team hopes to inoculate Kerry from Republican criticism with TV and radio ads, as well as placing stories with traditional media outlets in targeted markets, some unaccustomed to getting attention from presidential campaigns.
In his public remarks, Kerry intends to continue making the case that Bush has violated the public's trust on a wide range of policies, from Iraq and taxes to the environment. Aides see the flap over Bush's Vietnam-era commitment to the National Guard as an extension of their integrity argument.
But advisers want Kerry to represent positive change in education, health care and jobs — not just define himself as the anti-Bush. Thus, they're planning a series of policy speeches later in the year.
Kerry picked up more congressional endorsements Wednesday, including from 12 of the 20 Democratic House members who had supported Wesley Clark before poor showings in primaries Tuesday chased him from the race.