GUTTENBERG, Iowa – John Forbes Kerry, who has moved into the frontrunner position in key polls of Iowans who will set the course of the Democratic presidential campaign at Monday night’s critical caucuses, does not mind being confused with another “JFK.”

When the Massachusetts senator appeared before Democrats in this Mississippi River town north of Dubuque the other day, he invited questions from the crowd. Barbara Pape, of Guttenberg, raised her hand and, when Kerry recognized her, she began, “Senator Kennedy… Oh, I meant Senator Kerry.”

The crowd laughed, and so did Kerry, who quickly interjected, “That’s alright. Many, many people do it. It doesn’t bother me at all.”

In fact, Kerry is doing everything he can to play up his Kennedy connections in eastern Iowa, a heavily-Catholic region of working-class communities and rural areas where it is not uncommon for Democrats to hang photographs of former President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the nation’s first Roman Catholic president, next to images of the Virgin Mary and their Irish flags.

That’s smart politics in these parts. And it seems to be working.

It is on the basis of his support in Dubuque and eastern Iowa that Kerry, who has worked the city and surrounding counties assiduously for more than a year, has resurrected his campaign. Just a month ago, pollsters and pundits were writing Kerry off. The Massachusetts senator who, like JFK, is a decorated US Navy combat veteran with a record of service as a senator from Massachusetts, entered the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination as a presumed frontrunner. But he fell far behind former Vermont Governor Howard Dean in polls of Democrats nationally and in Iowa.

Now, however, the Des Moines Register poll released Sunday shows Kerry in first place with 26 percent support, followed by North Carolina Sen. John Edwards with 23 percent, Dean with 20 percent and former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt with 18 percent.

The Iowa caucuses are notoriously difficult to poll, and Kerry’s organization on the ground is not thought to be as strong as operations put in place by the Dean and Gaphardt campaigns. But if Kerry does win Monday night, he will be back in serious contention for the nomination. And it could well be the Kennedy connection in general, and its special resonance in eastern Iowa, that puts him there.

Kerry recognized early on that it is impossible to overplay the Kennedy card in Dubuque. The city’s biggest shopping mall is named “Kennedy.” So is one of the elementary schools, as well as a major thoroughfare that runs through town. And, campaign memorabilia from the presidential runs of John. Bobby and Teddy Kennedy seems to be everywhere.

“In Dubuque, a lot of people still think that ‘Kennedy’ is another word for ‘Democrat,'” explains Michael Breitbach, a native eastern Iowan who runs Breitbach’s Farmers’ Market Food Store in downtown Dubuque.

So, in addition to visiting the region repeatedly, and in addition to adding an extra dose of Kennedy references to his stump speech whenever he’s in the area, Kerry has run a Kennedy-style campaign in Dubuque and the towns north and south of it along the Mississippi. His local campaign literature tells Dubuque-area voters that “People You Trust… Trust John Kerry” and lists endorsements from local Democratic officials named Connolly, Connors and Flynn. It also reminds caucus goers that the senator, who shares the other JFK’s Catholocism, is backed by Sister Marlene McDonnell, Sister Corrine Murray, Sister Mary Ellen Dolan and other well-known nuns from Dubuque.

Needless to say, Kerry’s Senate record of strong support for abortion rights gets little emphasis here. Instead, the Kerry campaign has emphasized bread-and-butter economic issues and his ties to a certain Massachusetts family.

Kerry has repeatedly brought his fellow Massachusetts senator, Edward Kennedy, to eastern Iowa to campaign for him. Grabbing a line from Howard Dean, Kerry introduced Kennedy at a Sunday night rally in Waterloo by declaring, “This man is not just the conscience of the Senate, the lion of the Senate … but the undisputed, clear leader of the democratic wing of the Democratic party.”

When Kennedy made his second visit to Dubuque on Kerry’s behalf the other day, 600 people packed into a local hall. And Kerry, who worked on Kennedy’s first campaign for the Senate in 1962, got an “almost-family” blessing from the last of the Kennedy brothers.

Recalling that eastern Iowans were enthusiastic backers of his brother John’s presidential campaign in 1960, and of his brother Bobby’s campaign in 1968, Kennedy noted that he lost the state when he sought the presidency himself in 1980. He said all would be forgiven if Dubuque Democrats delivered for Kerry on caucus night.

“You are going to have three out of four, and I’m going to forgive you,” Kennedy told the crowd. “I’m telling you I want to see every one of you show up at those caucuses, or I’ll never forgive you. For the rest of my life, I’ll never forgive you!”

Then, Kennedy introduced a candidate with the initials, “JFK.” And the Dubuque crowd, properly encouraged, went wild.