WASHINGTON — President Bush's campaign strategists believe "Massachusetts liberal" is a potent political epithet. But they don't think it's enough to defeat Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

So the Bush team, which believes Kerry has the nomination wrapped up, is preparing a broad attack on his record over 19 years in the Senate and what they call his opportunistic reversals on key issues.

In Wisconsin, meanwhile, on the eve of the Wisconsin primary, a confident Kerry continued his own broad attack against Bush.

Ignoring his Democratic rivals, Kerry launched a full-throttle assault on Bush's economic policies. Howard Dean's campaign shed another top manager, national campaign chairman Steve Grossman, and John Edwards vowed to press on no matter how he fares Tuesday.

Kerry, who has a commanding lead in the race to oppose Bush this fall, chided the president for taking time out Sunday to attend the Daytona 500, saying the country was bleeding jobs while he posed for a "photo opportunity." Bush had donned a racing jacket to officially open NASCAR's most prestigious event in front of some 180,000 fans.

"We don't need a president who just says, 'Gentlemen, start your engines,' " Kerry said. "We need a president who says, 'America, let's start our economy and put people back to work.' "

The faceoff between Bush and Kerry has begun extraordinarily early in volleys of press releases and Web videos. It will continue for eight months, signaling the start of what could be a long, nasty campaign. Decisions being made now will define the territory on which the campaign is fought and establish competing portraits of the two men.

Already, Republicans are depicting Kerry as a product of Washington, beholden to special interests and out of touch with regular Americans. The "Massachusetts liberal" tag that

worked so well when the elder George Bush used it to defeat Gov. Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential race is just part of the case this Bush will try to make, aides say.

The drawback to the Bush strategy is that much of it has been tried before, most recently by Kerry's rivals for the nomination. Dean labeled Kerry "the handmaiden of special interests," and retired general Wesley Clark called him "part of the problem" in Washington.

Those criticisms have not slowed Kerry. But Bush strategists believe that the intense, sustained attack they began last week will take hold with voters and create doubts. The Bush campaign will have at least $170 million to spend, much of which it will use for TV ads hammering Kerry.

Full-force GOP criticism, led by the Republican National Committee, began as soon as Kerry won the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19. Kerry is "out of sync" with most Americans and one of the "most liberal members" of the Senate, RNC chairman Ed Gillespie said.

The first wave of disparagement is an old political tactic: Define your opponent before he defines himself. Bush's strategists want to pre-empt Kerry's self-portrait of a moderate who fights special interests before that picture is rooted in voters' minds.

"Politicians get in a lot of trouble when they present themselves as different than who they really are," says Matthew Dowd, the Bush campaign's chief strategist.

Something more personal and visceral also is driving the Bush strategy. Some advisers believe the first President Bush dismissed his challenger's chances in his 1992 re-election battle and waited too long to take on Bill Clinton. There will be no repeat of that mistake, they say.

Kerry advisers say they're ready. "As John Kerry would say, here are three words they'll be able to understand: Bring it on," says Mark Mellman, Kerry's pollster.

Researchers with the Bush campaign and at the Republican National Committee have examined Kerry's tenure as Massachusetts' lieutenant governor from 1982 to 1984, the 6,500 votes he has cast in the Senate, his speeches, his donors and his finances. They have studied his last campaign against a Republican, a 1996 victory over William Weld, who was governor of Massachusetts.

They see Kerry as a traditional candidate and expect him to follow a predictable plan. They also hope he follows a historic pattern: No sitting member of Congress has been elected president since John Kennedy — a Massachusetts liberal — in 1960.

But the Bush team sees plenty to worry about. Kerry, they say, is a relentless campaigner, an adept debater, a candidate with a history of strong finishes. "I didn't think he ever got below the belt," says Weld, who lost 45 percent to 52 percent. "His instinct is not to be personally offensive. . . . I would anticipate a substantive campaign."

A dozen Bush insiders in the White House, the campaign and key states, described the evolving Bush strategy. Most spoke on condition that they not be named. A preview of their lines of attack and how each might play out:

Kerry has left no footprint on Capitol Hill. "What's he done?" asks Mary Matalin, a Bush adviser. "He's been on the Hill forever and what does he have to show for it?"

Dean's campaign did the research and e-mailed the results to reporters: Kerry has sponsored 371 bills. Nine became law and six of those were more ceremonial, such as renaming a federal building, than substantive. The others were two bills related to marine research and one providing grants to women who own businesses.

Kerry's campaign didn't dispute the Dean campaign's information, but officials argued that it misrepresented Kerry's record. He teamed up with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona to reopen U.S. relations with Vietnam, and they are trying to raise fuel-economy standards and make Internet transactions tax-free. He helped stall Bush's plan to drill for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. "Sometimes," Kerry said in a debate Jan. 29, "your accomplishments are not in what you get done, but in what you stop other people from doing."

Reality check: Kerry has a short list of laws with his name on them. But interviews with people after they voted in Democratic primaries found experience ranked near the bottom of considerations that determined their votes. In the 2000 election, experience was less important to voters than honesty.

He switches positions when it's politically expedient. Kerry voted against the Gulf War in 1991, but in 2002 he voted for a resolution authorizing Bush to go to war against Iraq. His explanation: In 1991, he believed the first Bush administration should take more time to try diplomacy before military action. In 2002, he believed this administration had agreed to pursue diplomacy first.

Kerry voted for Bush's education bill, the No Child Left Behind Act, but now says he'd repeal it because it doesn't work. He voted for the USA Patriot Act, which expanded government power to monitor citizens after the Sept. 11 attacks, but now opposes it as intrusive. He opposed the death penalty for terrorists who kill Americans overseas but now supports it.

Reality check: Bush'strategists are planning ads focused on some of those things. Campaign manager Ken Mehlman said in an online chat Feb. 9 that Kerry's opposition to Bush's education bill means he wants to "take our nation backward." Some Democrats aligned with other candidates say privately that Kerry will have to come up with better explanations.

He's on the wrong side of issues that matter most to voters. "We question his judgment in consistently voting to cut defense and intelligence funding critical to our national security," Mehlman says.

After the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, Kerry voted to cut spending on intelligence by $1.5 billion over five years. In 1996, he voted to cut defense by $6.5 billion. He has since said that some of those votes were mistakes.

Bush's advisers see vulnerability in Kerry's stand on an emotional and divisive issue: gay marriage. In 1996, Kerry voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned federal recognition of gay marriages and allowed states to refuse to recognize those performed in other states. Kerry opposes gay marriage but supports civil unions and partnership rights.

Reality check: The differences between Bush's priorities and Kerry's are likely to dominate the competition for moderate and independent voters. How it plays out will depend on the shape the economy is in, progress in Iraq and whether gay marriage becomes a big campaign issue.

He's a hypocrite on the Vietnam War. "Hypocrisy is a character issue we ought to be concerned about," Gillespie said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

This charge is a crucial element of Bush's plan to rebut criticism of his own military service during the Vietnam War. Bush wants to label Kerry, a combat veteran who later actively opposed the war, a hypocrite for tossing his own combat ribbons and other veterans' medals, but not his own medals, during a 1971 anti-war protest. "Doing something that phony on such a poignant issue of conscience is unsettling," Matalin says. "What does the capacity to be so calculating say about him?"

Behind the strategy are concerns in Bush's camp about the potential damage of controversy over Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. Although he was honorably discharged, there are questions about how diligent Bush was during his guard service.

Reality check: This issue is about more than who did what 30 years ago. Kerry hopes his military record will help him counter doubts about his readiness to be commander in chief. Bush aides wish the media would focus on Kerry's past conduct, not on Bush's.

By 1990, 71 percent of Americans considered the Vietnam War a mistake. That suggests Kerry's opposition after serving may not become a pivotal issue. But questions about both men's conduct are more about character and credibility, qualities that matter in presidential campaigns.

If he wants to make an issue of Bush's military record, Kerry may be hindered by a remark he made in 1992 amid charges that Bill Clinton had dodged the draft. "We do not need to divide America over who served and how," Kerry said.

He's a captive of special interests. "Special interests' best friend," was the headline on an RNC press release about Kerry this month. In speeches, Kerry warns lobbyists, "We're coming, you're going, and don't let the door hit you on the way out."

But he has raised more money from lobbyists than any other senator over the past 15 years, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group. He received nearly $640,000 from lobbyists for his four Senate campaigns. For this race, Kerry has raised more than $225,000 from lobbyists.

Reality check: Last week, Bush's campaign posted a video ad on its Web site and e-mailed it to supporters. The ad, titled "Unprincipled," recites how much money Kerry's campaigns have received from lobbyists. This line of criticism may ring false for Bush, who collects lots of lobbyist donations and whose administration has consulted with special interests on energy, health and tax policies. Kerry's campaign responded with its own Web ad noting that Bush has "taken more special interest money than anyone in history."

He's the Democrats' default choice, not an inspirational leader. In a Feb. 4 memo, Bush strategist Dowd called Kerry a "safe, old standby . . . a traditional Democratic choice after the thrill of the Dean candidacy wore off."

Reality check: If Kerry is the nominee, he'll be elevated to star status. Bush strategists may be counting on a replay of the 1996 campaign. GOP nominee Bob Dole, who like Kerry was a war hero and veteran legislator, generated little excitement and lost to Clinton.

Bush will aim all those criticisms at Kerry, and he'll still haul out the "Massachusetts liberal" label often. Kerry supports gun control and gay rights. He opposes restrictions on abortion. Bush will emphasize those views to deny him support across the South.

"His problem isn't where he's from, it's where he stands on issues," says Ralph Reed, Bush's campaign chairman for the southeast. "Kerry's record of voting for huge tax increases, opposing a strong defense, and undermining our intelligence is out of the mainstream for a majority of voters."

Weld says Bush had better not underestimate Kerry. In the final months of their 1996 campaign, he says, Kerry's campaign "turned on a dime. The ads got sharper, the stump speech got crisper." Weld predicts that "man-to-man combat" lies ahead.


Contributing: Associated Press.