WASHINGTON John Kerry will be hard to beat in Tuesday's elections, but other Democratic presidential hopefuls can curb his momentum if they play to their strengths and his weaknesses in the right places.
While he is running strong everywhere, the four-term Massachusetts senator is not unstoppable anywhere, said Democratic strategists and political experts in the seven states at stake.
Kerry's victories in Iowa and New Hampshire gave him instant credibility with voters who crave a winning rival to President Bush. Even in states that under normal circumstances would run cool to a Massachusetts liberal, Kerry suddenly looks presidential, experts said Thursday.
He has momentum, which raises money, which breeds success.
''People who want a winner against Bush naturally gravitate to the guy who has won something,'' said Robert Kweit, political science professor at the University of North Dakota. His state has 14 pledged delegates up for grabs, fewest of Tuesday's states.
In Oklahoma, where 40 delegates are at stake, Kerry is in a four-way fight with rivals whose records are a more comfortable fit with the state's conservative Democrats. Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards are matching Kerry ad-for-ad on Oklahoma television. The fourth, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, can afford just a few ads.
''Clark and Edwards will be more Oklahoma-style candidates, but we're in a process where one caucus and one primary make a huge difference on the next,'' said Don Hoover, a political consultant who ran former Gov. David Walters' campaign.
It's the same story in Missouri, Arizona, South Carolina, New Mexico and Delaware. Experts give Kerry the edge although he ignored all seven states for months while salvaging his Iowa and New Hampshire campaigns.
But the front-runner has at least one rival in each state who could beat him, or grab a bundle of delegates by targeting congressional districts.
Even Dean could be a factor, despite running a campaign low on cash and barely playing in the seven states. He does not plan to air ads before Feb. 7 contests in Michigan and Washington state, but promises to visit Missouri, Arizona, South Carolina and New Mexico. He can deny Kerry delegates, if not wins.
Kerry's rivals would be smart to borrow a page from Republicans and cast him as a liberal, out of touch with moderate Democrats in places such as South Carolina and Oklahoma.
''Since this is a conservative state, I don't think that's going to play well,'' Kweit said in North Dakota. ''Democrats here don't want another Michael Dukakis,'' who lost the 1988 presidential race to George H. Bush after serving as Massachusetts' governor. Kerry was his lieutenant governor.
Kerry's rivals may have an ad advantage in some places. While Kerry was airing spots in all seven states Thursday, he was saturating markets in only two Oklahoma and South Carolina. Clark was running full steam in some markets in Arizona, South Carolina, Oklahoma and New Mexico. Edwards is on TV heavily in South Carolina, Oklahoma and New Mexico.
Besides Oklahoma and North Dakota, the states and their pledged delegate totals are:
MISSOURI (74): The most wide-open of the seven because it was ceded to native son Dick Gephardt until he pulled out of the race. Polls show Kerry well ahead, but Edwards is spending nearly as much on TV. The North Carolina lawmaker hopes to nab a chunk of delegates and exceed expectations. Dean and Clark plan to visit the state but were not broadcasting ads.
ARIZONA (55): Kerry has ties to the organization of Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, and he hoped to land her endorsement. David Eagle, former Maricopa Democratic Party chair, said Dean's young supporters have been calling his home ''so I know they have a lot of troops on the ground.''
SOUTH CAROLINA (45): Kerry, Clark, Edwards and Lieberman are airing ads. Edwards, born in the state, must win it. Experts say the race is tight. Waring Howe Jr., a Democratic National Committee member from the state, endorsed Kerry on Thursday. ''This is not just a bump,'' he said of Kerry's momentum. ''It's an earthquake.''
NEW MEXICO (26): Gov. Bill Richardson called Kerry the clear front-runner but noted that his state is more moderate than Iowa and New Hampshire. ''The race is not over,'' he said. Minnie Gallegos, a country chair in Santa Fe, said Dean may fare well despite losing much of the national spotlight to Kerry.
DELAWARE (15): Lieberman has invested the most time in the state and has the most endorsements. ''But I would say that Kerry is going to win here,'' said John Flaherty, former aide to Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del. ''I just don't think putting a nicer face on what Bush is saying will catch on.''
Associated Press Writers Susan Montoya Bryan from New Mexico and Liz Sidoti from Washington contributed to this report.
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