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Vulnerable Republicans are running scared in powerhouse Kerry's wake

If Karl Rove thinks he can take down John Kerry the way his mentor, Lee Atwater, took down Michael Dukakis, he's got another thing coming.

The Kerry who delivered that victory speech in Manchester on Tuesday night was the most effective Democratic politico since the fall of Bill Clinton. Within his first two minutes at the microphone, Kerry had delivered a stinging populist attack on the president and managed to identify himself with his Vietnam vet comrades who surrounded him onstage.

"I depended on the same band of brothers I depended on some 30 years ago," said Kerry, thanking Max Cleland and a bunch of guys wearing the insignias of their old units for delivering in New Hampshire as they had in Iowa. "We're a little older, a little grayer, but we still know how to fight for our country!"

Almost instantaneously, Kerry deployed both his offense and defense.

On the stump, he is seldom so succinct: Digressions abound, adverbs pop up to take the punch from his punch lines. But Kerry has a sense of occasion; he is at his best _ as he was Tuesday night, and during his debates against Bill Weld in their 1996 Senate contest _ when the whole world is watching.

What should most concern Republicans, though, is Kerry's adeptness in attacking the administration's nearly 90-degree tilt toward the rich _ toward the insurance, drug and oil companies, against which Kerry, like all the Democratic candidates except Joe Lieberman, inveighs.

The response of the GOP bloggers, talk show hosts and columnists is to accuse Kerry of a culturally inauthentic populism. Teresa Heinz Kerry and her husband, they note, bear scant resemblance to Ma and Pa Kettle.

Historically, though, the Democrats have done pretty well under the leadership of patricians who've attacked Republican plutocrats. Those patricians have needed some way to establish their normality, to be sure. In that sense, Kerry's time in Vietnam humanizes him much as the battle with polio did Franklin Roosevelt.

Like FDR, Kerry doesn't claim the populist mantle, nor does he have to. "What I'm talking about is fundamental fairness," he told me while bouncing down a New Hampshire highway the day before the primary, addressing people's outrage "that powerful lobbyists could achieve their ends on the Medicare bill to the detriment of the larger interest of the country. I don't call that populism; I call that Teddy Roosevelt-style "Let's make the market fair.' Republicans misjudge the sense of institutionalized unfairness that Americans are confronted with every day."

But the Republicans' vulnerability runs even deeper than that. For the very real economic anxieties of the American people _ diminishing health coverage, the inflation of college tuition and the disinclination of American corporations to do their hiring in America _ the Bush administration has nothing whatsoever to offer.

The abject failure of Bush's State of the Union address last week _ his popularity actually sank in its aftermath _ hasn't drawn much attention, sandwiched as it was between Iowa and New Hampshire. But I suspect a large segment of the American public views the president's interest in Mars exploration and in steroids in baseball as a kind of admission of his cluelessness or indifference (or both) to the nation's genuine needs.

The proclivity of U.S.-based corporations to create their new jobs abroad, for instance, has altered not at all the administration's patently absurd commitment to throwing money at those corporations as a way to generate jobs here at home. For his part, Kerry believes that the globalization of the job market imposes new obligations on the federal government. He's not calling for a new WPA, but he does believe that through tax policy and appropriations, the government can expand energy conservation, alternative energy, health care and schools in ways that will create large numbers of blue- and white-collar jobs.

The fact that Kerry, and the Democrats generally, have a relevant economic program and Bush does not is one of those things that the American electorate has already begun to detect. Kerry in particular has shown a consistent ability to win portions of that electorate that Rove is counting on to keep George Bush in the White House. The Massachusetts senator ran particularly well among New Hampshire's working-class Catholics this week, and why not? Kerry had the faith, the populism, the Vietnam vets and the support of the firefighters union _ not normally a political powerhouse when stacked up against the giant unions supporting Howard Dean, but one hell of a cultural signifier to voters Bush will need in November.

Real men support John Kerry. How would Lee Atwater get out of that one?

Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and political editor of L.A. Weekly.

Special to the Washington Post