updated 1/29/2004 9:07:10 AM ET 2004-01-29T14:07:10

Facing a new Democratic front-runner in John Kerry, President Bush’s re-election campaign is quietly shifting gears, preparing for the possibility it will confront a war hero and current senator.

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But the line of attack is the same: Whether Howard Dean or Kerry, the Democrats’ nominee would be a left-leaning New Englander who wants to “raise taxes” and reverse course on Iraq, campaign officials and Bush advisers say.

“This week’s front-runner is very much like the front-runner of two weeks ago: a Northeast liberal who motivates his support based on anger and negativity,” said Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt.

Result of Dean strategy?
At the same time, there is debate within Bush’s administration and inside his re-election headquarters about how hard to strike at Kerry, of Massachusetts, who won the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

Some of Bush’s political advisers take credit for successfully tarring Dean as an angry liberal, and are now suffering a kind of buyer’s remorse. They wonder whether their criticism fueled the rise of Kerry — a more formidable candidate, in the estimation of some campaign officials.

He is a decorated Vietnam War veteran, knowledgeable about domestic and foreign affairs, and has a certain gravitas and strength as a debater.

Knocking down Kerry now, they say, could help ignite the candidacy of a Democrat some Bush campaign officials fear even more: Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who finished a strong second in Iowa but slumped to fourth place in New Hampshire, just behind retired Gen. Wesley Clark, his other Southern rival.

A recent poll showed Edwards with a slight lead in South Carolina’s critical primary next Tuesday, and he holds a strong appeal elsewhere in the South, which was Bush Country in 2000.

Some Bush campaign advisers worry that Edwards’ promise to end what the candidate charges are the “two Americas” — one for the wealthy and privileged and the other for working people and the poor — could have broad appeal.

Bush operatives are also mindful that in Edwards’ 1998 election, about six in 10 women backed him, and black voters supported him by a 9-to-1 margin.

Bush travels
As Democrats moved on to the next round of primary states, Bush was heading to New Hampshire on Thursday, two days after the primary, to polish his image after months of pummeling by the Democrats.

Later in the evening, Bush was raising re-election money in Greenwich, Conn. He has more than $130 million, a sizable a war chest that will allow him to hammer the Democrats between now and August.

Officially, the administration says it is above the Democrats’ fray. But White House corridors were abuzz Wednesday with talk of New Hampshire and the Democratic candidates.

The Republican National Committee began compiling dossiers on each of the potential Democratic candidates as early as January 2002, and Bush’s re-election campaign now has those files at its fingertips.

The campaign’s rap on Kerry: He casts himself as an enemy of special interests, while cozying up to them and benefiting from them as a senator; He has spent most of his career in Washington; He has a privileged background that leaves him out of touch with the concerns of everyday Americans; He is an “old Left” liberal in the mold of Edward Kennedy and Michael Dukakis; His populist talk smacks of “class warfare.”

Kennedy connection
Republican Party chief Ed Gillespie, who has criticized Kerry as being more liberal than Kennedy, was continuing the anti-Kerry message in a speech Thursday to the RNC that says Kerry’s voting record shows him to be soft on national security.

Kerry also fits into the Bush campaign’s one-Democrat-fits-all criticism, several campaign officials said: He advocates rolling back portions of Bush’s tax cuts; he has criticized provisions in No Child Left Behind, Bush’s signature education reform law, and the new Medicare law; he is sharply critical of Bush’s Iraq policy and would shift course there; he opposes parts of the Patriot Act and the supplemental spending bill that authorized $87 billion for Iraq military operations and rebuilding last fall.

Kerry voted for education bill and the Patriot Act, though he has criticized the administration on both since then. He voted against the $87 billion for Iraq but did not cast a vote on the Medicare bill.

Does the campaign see Kerry as a tougher opponent than Dean?

“I don’t know,” Holt said. “Anyone the Democrats put forth will have very much the same policy positions, whether it’s raising taxes, opposing the war. Even if we don’t yet know who their nominee will be, we do know that they will have a left-wing philosophy.”

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