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Already, GOP framing a Kerry fight

The long-serving senator could be an especially ripe target for Bush to tag as an out-of-touch Massachusetts liberal.

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So far, Sen. John Kerry has won only a fraction of the 2,162 delegates he needs to take the Democratic presidential nomination, but Republicans have already placed him in their sights as the party's most likely opponent in November. The label is already set: He is a Kennedy-Dukakis liberal from Massachusetts.

And unlike the seven Democratic candidates, who have burned through millions of dollars battling each other, the Bush reelection team is sitting on a growing mountain of campaign cash, ready to be deployed against President Bush's opponent in the form of ads, direct mail, and other methods.

On a basic level, just about any of the Democratic contenders would face the same story line from the Republicans: that the nominee is a liberal, out of touch with the American mainstream. But if some Democrats are feeling relieved that Howard Dean's nomination prospects have dropped - based on the view that he wasn't presidential enough - they would still have their work cut out for them with Kerry.

Kerry may project more "presidentialness" - with the towering height, the stentorian voice, the measured demeanor - than Dean, but he also comes with the longest paper trail of any of the candidates, including 19 years as a senator, with votes on the full range of national issues. Dean, who served as Vermont governor for 11 years, did not take positions on many national issues.

"What the Republicans are going to do is whittle him down to size as a Dukakis liberal," says a senior GOP Senate aide, referring to the former Massachusetts governor and Democratic presidential nominee in 1988. "Kerry's going to have to be able to fend that off before it all sticks."

Clearly, the aide says, Kerry is "formidable" in personal biography and stature, with a compelling military record - including three Purple Hearts - from his Vietnam War days. But, he adds, "you can be sure, at this very moment, the RNC [Republican National Committee] has mined every vote that John Kerry has cast in the US Senate since 1985. The playbook is there."

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