“Oh, this is the guy who is supposed to get it,” Pam Earle-Benbow said as John Kerry addressed a candidate forum that drew several thousand advocates for low-income families to the Township Auditorium in Columbia, South Carolina, four days before that state’s February 3 primary. “He’s the favorite son of the day, but he’s not very exciting, is he?” said the construction worker. Kameelah Khaalid, a single mom and college student, who was seated near Earle-Benbow, nodded. But as Kerry finished his by-now rote review of his impressive Vietnam War record, his admirable anti-Vietnam War record and his gently liberal list of stands on everything from education to immigration, Khaalid said, “He does sound like a President.” “Yes,” added Earle-Benbow. “And he looks like a President.”

Both women said they remained skeptical about Kerry. But, Khaalid explained, almost apologetically, “You see, we gotta have someone who can beat Bush.”

That sense that Kerry has the capacity to dispatch the nation’s forty-third President, as opposed to any newfound love of the man or his patrician-populist message, has lifted the Massachusetts senator from also-ran to prospective nominee in the course of two months. On February 3, Kerry parlayed wins in Missouri, Arizona, New Mexico, North Dakota and Delaware, and solid finishes behind Wesley Clark in Oklahoma and John Edwards in South Carolina, into official front-runner status. And in one day he went from trailing former front-runner Howard Dean in the count of pledged convention delegates to leading Dean by a 2-to-1 margin. (Dean has won a scattering of delegates in primaries and caucuses, but ninety-eight of his total of 121 are “super-delegates”–mostly members of Congress and party leaders who announced their support for him when he was running strong.)

Kerry didn’t just win delegates, he won “electability” bragging rights. Alone among the contenders, Kerry can claim to be more than a niche candidate, having competed seriously–and for the most part, successfully–in every primary and caucus held so far. He was the clear favorite of Latino voters in Arizona, African-American voters in Missouri, rural voters in North Dakota and union voters just about everywhere. What has suddenly made Kerry so appealing? Not his personality or his consistency on the issues: “caring for people,” “right temperament” and “stands for beliefs” were Kerry weak spots in exit polls. Kerry’s strength was as a political warrior: 78 percent of his Missouri voters ranked his top quality as “can beat Bush”; the figure was 71 percent in Delaware and 65 percent in Arizona. In most states, Kerry even won among voters who identified themselves as being “strongly opposed” to the war in Iraq, despite the fact that he supported the Senate resolution authorizing the use of force. Kerry’s ability to refashion himself as a critic of the war was essential to his success: In Arizona and South Carolina, 74 percent of exit poll interviewees opposed the war; in Missouri the figure was 63 percent and in Oklahoma it was 56 percent.

By neutralizing the war as an issue, Kerry can play the “beat Bush” card without distraction. And he does so at every campaign stop. It gives him the ability to draw primary and caucus voters out of the camps of other contenders and into his column–people like Dr. Janice Bohac, a plant breeder for the USDA in Charleston, South Carolina, who lit up when they talked about the more militant messages of Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich or Dean but who finished their sentences, as Bohac did, by saying, “Kerry is a Democrat who I can be for in a place like South Carolina and not have to apologize.” A few feet away from Bohac stood Ken Riley, the president of International Longshoreman’s Association Local 1422, one of the South’s savviest union leaders. “You could probably find someone who would line up with your views a little closer, but that candidate couldn’t win,” he said. “John Kerry can win.”

The opportunities to slow Kerry down are disappearing fast on a primary and caucus schedule designed by Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe to reward establishment candidates with money and momentum. But Kerry still has vulnerabilities that Bush will exploit–unless his Democratic challengers do so first. Unions remain rightly uncomfortable with Kerry’s support for international trade agreements, which has been almost as consistent as that of corporation-friendly Democrat Joe Lieberman. Lieberman’s own campaign went nowhere this year because he stood on the platform of the conservative Democratic Leadership Council. It is notable that, with Lieberman out of the race, there is no rush to pick up the DLC mantle; rather, Kerry and Edwards are meeting with the industrial unions that backed Dick Gephardt. The increasingly populist Edwards, who has a better record than Kerry, hopes to secure enough labor backing to mount a “fair trade versus free trade” challenge in such states as Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania. And Kerry may yet be called to account for his votes to authorize the use of force in Iraq and for the USA Patriot Act (see “Questions for Kerry,” page 6). Dean and Clark talk about making stands in Wisconsin, where the February 17 primary is shaping up as a critical test and where Senator Russ Feingold is a home state hero for casting a lonely vote against the Patriot Act.

McAuliffe and other party chiefs want to settle this race quickly so they can get down to the serious business of fundraising. But even they should recognize that it is wiser to let Kerry take a battering now from fellow Democrats and prove up to it rather than to simply assume that the strengths he has shown will be sufficient. Kerry will be a better candidate in the fall if he is forced to sort out his stands on free trade, the war on Iraq and the Patriot Act before Bush asks, “Why are you criticizing me now when as a senator you backed so many of my initiatives?” The in-it-until-the-convention Al Sharpton makes a very good point when he says, “We all want to beat Bush, but we’ve got some things to sort out among ourselves so we don’t nominate someone who isn’t quite ready for prime time.”