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Kerry in the spotlight

For all the exaggerated attention lavished on them by the candidates and the media, New Hampshire and Iowa combined can deliver no more than 67 of the 2,200 delegates a Democratic candidate needs to become his party's presidential nominee. So John Kerry, who won 33 delegates by finishing first in last week's Iowa caucuses and Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, is only a little more than 1 percent of the way to the nomination. Still, barring a major blunder in the next week or two, Kerry is on the verge of victory. Such is the nature of a front-loaded nomination process that is driven by money and momentum, both of which are flowing Kerry's way.

Kerry has had the best of both worlds so far. From the start of the race, the Massachusetts senator was the choice of most of the party insiders trying to choreograph a quick and placid nomination process. Yet Kerry has, until now, been spared the withering scrutiny that typically is turned on the front-runner. That unnerving attention instead was focused early on Howard Dean, whose insurgent campaign had lifted him to the top of the money race and preference polls before the first votes were cast.

Dean faltered under that scrutiny, committing a succession of missteps that raised questions about his temperament and experience. Kerry is more of a known quantity than Dean, whose tenure as governor of Vermont did not exactly make him a household name. He also is a calmer presence. Even when his campaign hits an inevitable bump, Kerry is unlikely to launch into a vein-bulging rant within camera range.

Still, Kerry has to overcome some remaining doubts among his fellow Democrats before he can begin planning a fall campaign against President Bush. His 19-year Senate voting record will be combed for evidence of wrongheadedness and inconsistency. The questions begin with Iraq. Kerry still has not done a persuasive job of explaining the contradiction between his early vote giving the president authority to go to war and his later criticism of the administration's handling of the war. The shift smacked of political expediency. Kerry also will have to explain the frequent disparity between his public comments, which often have championed thoughtful reforms in education, social services and other issues, and his voting record, which is a chronicle of liberal orthodoxy.

Then there is the question of how well Kerry's personality will wear with voters. Kerry is striving to thaw his patrician chill, but Iowa and New Hampshire did not give him occasion to bond with the NASCAR dads, Hispanic and African-American voters who will be a big part of the Democratic electorate now that the campaign has headed south. John Edwards and Wesley Clark hope to have a home-field advantage over Kerry in South Carolina and some of the border states with primaries on Feb. 3, but their weak showings in New Hampshire leave them only one more bad week away from elimination. Dean is the only candidate other than Kerry with the money and organization to continue a national campaign, but he, too, needs a victory in a hurry.

The New Hampshire also-rans can only hope that Kerry stumbles in the spotlight. But Kerry has dealt with national attention for more than 30 years, since he returned from the battlefield and became the most prominent voice of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He showed great courage and principle then. Democratic voters are examining him closely now to see if the man with the Rushmore face and perfect hair has the stuff to take on President Bush this fall.