A year ago when people asked me to foresee the Democratic nominee, I’d hedged a little bit and predicted John Kerry. My rationale was that the primary race in 2004 would be very similar to 1988; a wide-open scramble where a New Englander with a pile of money would have a telling advantage. I figured Kerry would have everything Mike Dukakis had and more. But having worked a few insurgent primaries myself, I saw Howard Dean coming and started predicting a Dean upset in January. I think the same today. I still see a New Englander with money winning, just a different one. As regular “Backseat” readers know, I’ve been critical of Kerry’s campaign. I think he’s losing. But it is early and since I’ve tried to outline a credible argument for both Edwards and Gephardt, I’ll try to do the same for John Kerry.

First the problems. When Kerry launched his campaign, he was the party establishment’s favored candidate and as such he declared himself the front-runner. His inside message to activists and donors: be for what is going to happen. With that tactic comes high expectations. If you put on a superman suit, people expect you to start tossing locomotives. Kerry is now caught in a geographical vise of expectations.

He has to “do well” in Iowa, which is Dick Gephardt’s base and a paradisiacal River City of new suckers for Howard Dean’s “Music Man.” But Kerry can’t duck Iowa; he’s the frontrunner, remember, and front-runners must be strong everywhere. Plus Iowa’s result will jolt Kerry’s fortress New Hampshire, already under siege by the pesky Dean. (I saw an interesting independent private poll done last week that had Dean a good step ahead of Kerry in N.H.. The sample was too small to totally trust, but it had Dean up double digits with Democrats and Kerry up 8 with Independents.)

Kerry is also in a message quandary. He appears to be banking on biography, and that is seldom enough. Witness President Glenn. Can Kerry wiggle out of his size 42 extra long Muskie suit and win the nomination? Possibly. Front-runners learn to keep marching forward through bumps and setbacks. Kerry is doing that well. They play fierce inside baseball among party leaders and interest groups. Kerry’s folks are good at it, relentlessly stealing Gephardt’s labor support and giving him no room to breathe easy. Kerry leads in cash on hand.

And front-runners usually have candidate skills from past campaigns that helped them earn front-runner status in the first place. Kerry is no different. When he is cornered, Kerry is very good, as former Governor and would be Senator Bill Weld can tell you.

Frontrunners used to win with the kind of defense in depth the Russian army used to crush invaders. Lose a few early battles, retreat deep, take a zillion causalities but crush them over time with huge resources. Some see the same today, an appealing melodrama with dramatic Oklahoma turn-arounds and Washington state comebacks. I don’t. This calendar is too fast; there is no depth to fall back on. You have to win early and keep winning because it is over so fast. Plus, Dean presents Kerry with a new kind of insurgent nightmare: he has money.

I do not think Kerry can survive by losing big early and coming back later. To prevail, he must exceed expectations in Iowa. His staff will argue the merits of an impressive third place Kerry triumph over the menacing Graham, Kucinich, Edwards, and Sharpton machines, but I think he needs to beat somebody who is now in front of him to earn a true win. You win nominations by beating people. It’s hard. Kerry needs to beat either Gephardt or Dean in Iowa and run the table New Hampshire and beyond. That sets up either a Kerry versus Gephardt duel for the establishment — the race Kerry wants and would probably win — or locks the contest into a battle royal with the insurgent Dr. Dean trying to topple the party and John Kerry leading the regulars.

I still predict nominee odds as Dean first, Gephardt a weak second, Kerry third. Maybe an Edwards boomlet in September if he can get very good TV on very big very soon.

John Kerry is no longer the front-runner. But he has many of the front-runner’s vital assets and strong skills which keep him in the hunt. But he needs a sharper campaign and he needs it fast.