President George Bush rang the Massachusetts senator on Tuesday night to congratulate him on winning another brace of state primary elections, saying he was looking forward to a "spirited race".

But that will be the last friendly call that Kerry receives from a Republican before November’s elections. Having sprinted to the finish line in the Democrat primary contest, Kerry now faces not just a spirited race, but a gruelling eight-month marathon.

Speaking at a fund-raising event in Los Angeles on Thursday, Bush targeted Kerry for the first time – describing the senator as a tax-loving liberal who was soft on national security.

As the president spoke, his campaign began airing election ads – financed by a formidable fund-raising operation that Kerry is unlikely to match.

A decorated Vietnam War veteran, Kerry now has a fight on his hands. Besides countering the inevitable attacks from the Bush camp, the senator must sell himself effectively to millions of undecided voters, pick the right running mate and fight the battles he can win.

Liberal label

"The most important thing Kerry has to do now is brand himself," says Professor Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution in Washington, an expert on US presidential politics. "He’s not a household name."

"Twice as many Americans identify themselves as conservatives rather than liberal, so Kerry has to shake off that label"

Stephen Hess,
Brookings Institution

Some Republicans have already found a name for Kerry: "Massachusetts liberal". It was used to destructive effect in 1988 to smear another Democrat presidential hopeful, Michael Dukakis.

The phrase evokes a perception of Massachusetts as a breeding ground for political elites, culturally out of step with mainstream America, which is not as liberal as Kerry and his Democrat supporters.

"Twice as many Americans identify themselves as conservatives rather than liberal, so Kerry has to shake off that label," says Hess.

Bush’s apparent decision to make an election issue out of gay marriage seems designed to expose Kerry’s liberal underbelly. The president wants a constitutional ban, which Kerry opposes, though he has avoided endorsing gay marriage itself, saying he favours civil unions.

Election issues

Nuanced stances like this may prove tricky to sell to voters – most of whom oppose gay marriage. And despite being a former soldier, Kerry faces a tough task challenging a self-styled wartime president on defence and national security.

Analysts say Kerry should focus
on domestic issues first

Swing voters continue to back Bush on Iraq and national security issues, according to a survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Centre published on Wednesday.

But they tend to side with Kerry over the faltering economy, which has shown reasonable growth, but has so far failed to create many new jobs. A projected budget deficit of more than $477 billion has also given Democrats useful political ammunition.

"Kerry will primarily focus on domestic bread and butter issues such as the economy and unemployment,"says veteran political consultant Joe Cerrell, head of Cerrell Associates in Los Angeles. "Later on, he can deal with foreign policy and Iraq."

But the Iraq war remains "an emotional issue", says Cerrell, and Kerry will undoubtedly return to it. Kerry voted for the Iraq war resolution in 2003, but has since criticised Bush for mishandling the conflict and failing to work with allies more closely.

Running mate

Another key decision Kerry faces is his choice for vice president. Cerrell has worked on the campaigns of several White House hopefuls, from former presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to defeated candidates John Glenn and Al Gore. He says picking the right partner can make all the difference.

"I was there in 1960 when Kennedy chose Johnson to be his running mate," recalls Cerrell. "Kennedy wouldn’t have been elected president if he hadn’t picked Johnson."

"I was there in 1960 when Kennedy chose Johnson to be his running mate. Kennedy wouldn’t have been elected president if he hadn’t picked Johnson"

Joe Cerrell,
Cerrell Associates

Kerry may deflect the north-east liberal smear and broaden his national appeal by picking a more centrist vice presidential candidate from the south.

Kennedy, a Massachusetts senator like Kerry, went for a Texan. Many observers say Kerry’s second-placed rival in the Democrat primaries, North Carolina senator John Edwards, fits the bill.

"I think he would be high on the list of candidates," says Hess. "Edwards also has an optimistic, positive mein that Kerry lacks." However, Edwards’ failure to win any primaries outside his home state casts doubt on whether he can "deliver the south".

Another contender is Bill Richards, governor of New Mexico. As well as being a prominent southern politician, Richards is from the Hispanic community, the largest US ethnic minority.

Cash and Kerry

Kerry also faces the question of money. He has spent nearly all the $32mn he raised on his primary campaign and has run up about $7mn in debt. But having emerged as the de facto Democrat presidential challenger, Kerry is expected to garner at least $100mn.

In contrast, Bush has proven to be a fund-raising juggernaut, pocketing about $150mn already and on track to exceed the $191mn he collected in the 2000 campaign.

"Bush is going to shatter his own record for campaign fund-raising,"says Steven Weiss of the Centre for Responsive Politics in Washington, an independent organisation that monitors political finance. "The chances of Kerry catching up are very small."

This gives Bush a distinct advantage in battlefields such as television advertising, a very expensive and potentially devastating form of campaigning, especially negative attack ads.

Some Kerry supporters had hoped to tap the assets of his Mozambique-born wife, Theresa Heinz Kerry. The widow of Pennsylvania Senator John Heinz III (of the Heinz food dynasty) is reckoned to be worth more than $210mn – prompting some to refer to the couple as Cash and Kerry. Electoral rules, however, limit any individual donation she can make to $2000.

Nevertheless, so many other factors are involved in presidential campaigns that Kerry need not panic about his financial inferiority, says Weiss.

"It doesn’t close the book on who wins and who loses," he says.