MILWAUKEE - As the Democratic race winds down, John Kerry faces a new and potentially crucial challenge: collecting upwards of $100 million to help him compete against the well-oiled Bush re-election campaign.
The Massachusetts senator's chances of finding enough cash to get his anti-Bush message heard over the next six months could depend on his ability to make peace with his archrival Howard Dean. The former Vermont governor is facing another likely defeat, his 17th straight, in today's Wisconsin primary, in which Kerry is heavily favored.
Dean's next move is a mystery, but this much is clear: His list of about 380,000 contributors is the biggest prize in the wreckage of his once high-flying campaign. Dean not only set new Democratic money records; he also raised more than twice as much as the party's national committee last year.
"The most critical decision John Kerry has to make in the next month is what his relationship with Howard Dean will be," said Elaine Kamarck, who was a senior adviser in Al Gore's 2000 campaign. "Because the only potential he has for getting us within striking distance of the Republicans' money is to somehow convert that Dean fund-raising machine into a generic Democratic or Kerry machine.
"I don't know if that's possible," she added. "But the delicate relationship between Dean and Kerry is going to be very, very critical to the question of whether Kerry has the resources to compete with Bush."
Party officials and Kerry aides have yet to work out a role for Dean in the general election campaign, in part because Dean has yet to announce plans for the next phase of his campaign. The Vermonter has said he won't be a spoiler, but has not yet come to terms with those in his own camp who say it's time to stop running.
Dean said yesterday that he would "absolutely not" quit the campaign if he lost in Wisconsin. But top aides have already departed his Burlington, Vt., headquarters. Others are expected to quit tomorrow.
Just yesterday, Dean said his national chairman, Steve Grossman, had left the campaign after Grossman said he would reach out to Kerry if Dean lost the Wisconsin primary.
Grossman, a wealthy Boston-area businessman, is a former national party head who co-chaired Kerry's 1996 Senate campaign. He told CNN he had not yet had conversations with Kerry, but hoped to act as a bridge between the two camps.
Aides said Dean might continue campaigning at least until he's mathematically eliminated from contention - and possibly all the way to the national convention in Boston this summer.
At the same time, he has already begun shifting into a less confrontational mode. After continuing to hammer Kerry as recently as last week, Dean pointedly avoided attacking in Sunday night's debate here. As he began the last day of the Wisconsin campaign, at a breakfast for Muslims in Milwaukee, he didn't refer to any other Democrats at all.
Kerry, meantime, has tried to avoid stirring up his mercurial foe. He no longer criticizes Dean publicly, and he went out of his way in the Wisconsin debate to praise Dean's position on college loans for poor and middle-income students.
But personal relations between the two men are icy at best. Dean said the other day that if he couldn't become the nominee, he'd prefer North Carolina Sen. John Edwards over Kerry. Dean also indicated, less than two months ago, that his most loyal supporters would be unlikely to back someone like Kerry.
"They're certainly not going to vote for a conventional Washington politician," he said.
An estimated 600,000 people have either contributed money or actively supported Dean as volunteers, according to the campaign. Dean has raised and spent nearly $50 million to date, roughly half of it collected over the Internet and most in contributions of $100 or less.
Present and former aides who helped build Dean's campaign said his supporters, and particularly those who backed him financially, would take their cues from Dean himself.
"Howard Dean is still going to be the leader of this movement," said Paul Maslin, the campaign's pollster.
"It won't be easy to transfer the energy or enthusiasm or the money" if Kerry is the nominee, Maslin added.
"Kerry is going to have to show genuineness on the issues these people care about, starting with the war [in Iraq] and No Child Left Behind and the Patriot Act. Then there's the whole question of 'Do you really mean it when you say special interests have got to get out of this process?'"
Joe Trippi, who was Dean's campaign manager until the two had a falling-out 2 1/2 weeks ago, agreed that contributions might not flow from large numbers of Dean's supporters unless Dean himself is "out there speaking and leading the charge." Other key factors will include how long it takes for Dean to end his candidacy and reach an agreement with Kerry, he said.
Trippi said, though, that the Kerry-Dean split is not as deep as past Democratic schisms, like the rupture between former President Jimmy Carter and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, his challenger in the 1980 primaries.
But unlike the party regulars who figured in past fights, Dean's backers are, to a substantial extent, newcomers to politics. Many are seething over the prospect of supporting Kerry. Some are calling on Dean to bolt the party and form an independent movement, which he's indicated he won't do.
"I have never voted for a Republican, but I'm thinking now that the Democratic Party is not really worth my investment either," Bryan Foshee, 38, of Memphis, Tenn., said in a posting on Trippi's new Web log (www. changeforamerica.com). "As far as I'm concerned, they are the lesser of two evils. I know I'm supposed to be a good little Deaniac and get in line with whoever is the nominee but that's not why I started supporting Howard Dean."
Foshee said in a telephone interview that he and his wife had given Dean about $400, which they had to budget carefully in order to afford. "I don't intend to budget even one cent for Kerry," he said.
Another blogger on Trippi's site wrote: "I am writing in Dean's name in November and afterwards I am going to return to my previous apolitical life. Maybe I'll stay there, maybe I'll return. I don't know. I am just disillusioned beyond words."
Trippi said he believes an overwhelming majority of Dean supporters will eventually vote for the Democratic nominee, because defeating Bush was the "No. 1 goal from the very beginning" of Dean's campaign.
But he acknowledged that many Dean contributors, one-fourth of whom are under 30, may be less inclined to give money to Kerry, whose personal wealth allowed him to write a $6.4 million check to his own campaign.
"The $25 or $75 giver may say, 'Hey, I get to go to the movies. You don't need my money,'" Trippi said.
Roy Neel, who replaced Trippi as campaign manager, said, "It's going to be, no doubt, a challenging task. ... A lot of it will depend on John Kerry."
"It's like asking the anti-establishment to join the establishment. It's going to be a tough ask," said Sarah Leonard, another Dean aide. "John Kerry is the establishment."