The whispering in Washington these days is that John Kerry could emerge -- emerge being one of those great hocus-pocus journalistic words -- as the Democratic front-runner in the race for president should Al Gore decide to remain an author.

Kerry has some obvious assets. A Vietnam war hero. A veteran lawmaker with foreign policy experience. A wealthy wife to help finance the campaign. And good hair.

He also has some drawbacks, not least of which is his image as a Massachusetts liberal of the kind that was demolished by Dubya's dad. And he's never had a particularly warm relationship with the press.

In case you hadn't noticed, the '04 campaign is very much under way.

ABC plans to crown the "sexiest person in America" with a new reality series called "Are You Hot?" By early next year, the rest of the media will be doing the same for the Democrats.

Each contender will have to run the journalistic gauntlet: newspaper interviews, magazine profiles, morning show appearances. With the actual primary voting a year away, the White House wannabes will be judged by three criteria: money raised, poll results and media reviews.

Unlike, say, John Edwards, Kerry has been a national figure for a long time. And yet there is a sense that we don't really know him -- "know" in the campaign-hothouse sense in which we came to know, say, Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore. Kerry, newly reelected, will have to find a way to connect. His Nam experience inoculates him, McCain-like, on questions of war and peace, although he did vote against the Gulf War resolution in '91.

In a Los Angeles Times poll of Democratic National Committee members, Kerry finished second, with 10 percent, behind Gore's 13 percent. (All right, so "No Preference" crushed them both at 46 percent.)

If Kerry is seen as leading the pack -- or running neck and neck with candidate Gore -- the potential downside is that he could seem like old news by the time of the Iowa caucuses. The media have a way of chewing up and spitting out front-runners. But for now, that's a problem John Kerry would likely be happy to have.

The Boston Globe examines "a basic question for would-be challengers to President Bush in 2004: After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, can a Democrat vote against the president on war and still remain a viable national candidate?

"Responds Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a Vietnam veteran and likely Democratic presidential candidate: 'Absolutely. Without any question.'

"So, did Kerry vote 'safe' when he supported Bush on the Iraq resolution? To that, Kerry says heatedly, 'You don't vote safe or nonsafe when you're talking about sending people to war. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. You had a national security issue. You may hate the timing, the cynicism of it, the raw political exploitation of it. But you still have a fundamental national security issue.' .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Says Kerry: 'If Dick Cheney .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. and a bunch of people who didn't serve want to make that the fight, I'm ready for that. I'd welcome that. How do you really best defend the security interests of the United States -- that's a debate we should have.'"

The old chicken-hawk charge.

"On the national stage, Kerry is definitely trying to walk a fine line between critic and patriot. He has been highly critical of Bush policy in the Middle East. He was the only Democrat to speak out on Bush administration tactics in Afghanistan, while defending the Democrats' 'right to ask questions on war.' He continued his high-profile questioning of the Bush administration's talk of war with Iraq, winning praise from national pundits like The Wall Street Journal's Albert Hunt, who wrote recently that 'no Democrat has offered a more coherent criticism of the Bush national security policies, ranging from military operations in Afghanistan to diplomatic fumbles in the Mideast.'

"Yet despite all the cautionary talk, and despite heavy lobbying from antiwar constituents, Kerry voted for the Iraqi war resolution. On election day, at least 20,000 Massachusetts residents voted for a write-in Senate candidate, Randall Forsberg, to protest Kerry's support of war.

"Cynically speaking, that is good news for Kerry. He can use it to show he is not the stereotypical Massachusetts liberal the Bush clan loves to run against."

David Shribman, the Globe's Washington bureau chief, says Kerry is rolling:

"Though the Iowa precinct caucuses, which are the formal opening of the presidential campaign, are 14 months away, the competition is now bursting into the open. The first indication: Kerry's success in putting down talk inside the political establishment that his senior colleague, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, might support another contender. That victory sent two messages coursing through the political world. The first is that Kerry could be a formidable force in a nomination campaign that will formally end in his hometown. The second is that Democrats, hungry to find a new party leader and to regain the offensive in Washington, are not going to wait until 2003 to begin the nomination fight for 2004. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"For a long while the buzz was with Senator John Edwards, the Democrat of North Carolina. He will regain it if attention swerves from Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states, to South Carolina, which is likely to be the third state. The buzz on Kerry is good right now, especially in New Hampshire, where he is well known."

In case you were wondering about that other Massachusetts liberal, Kerry has actually put out a statement, as quoted in another Globe piece:

"No one should try to scare up some 'Michael Dukakis' issue. It doesn't work. I am not Michael Dukakis, and Michael Dukakis is not me, and the first person who would tell you that is Michael Dukakis."

He may want to fax that over to the Republicans.

All this reminds us of a New Republic cover story last June titled "Can John Kerry make people like him?"

"Kerry can't seem to catch a break. His press clippings record 18 years of journalistic wisecracks about his ego, his looks, and his self-promotion. The word 'aloof' comes up constantly--51 times in the same sentence as Kerry's name, according to a Nexis search. 'He is widely derided as aloof and arrogant,' The Boston Globe has said. 'Kerry .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. has been called brooding and aloof,' informed USA Today in 1996. 'Some critics call him aloof. One political observer characterizes him as "a frozen piece of fish,"' CNN snickered that same year. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"So Kerry is attacking the frozen-fish factor head-on, launching an aggressive effort to reintroduce himself to the public as a centrist, a veteran, and, most importantly, an all-around likable guy. Don't call it a repackaging, his advisers say--they're just revealing the inner John."

Sounds rather Gore-like, in a way.

Salon's Anthony York offers his take on Gore and Kerry, among others:

"Al Gore: To some Democrats, Al Gore figures in this race like a dentist appointment -- inevitable, perhaps, but not a whole lot of fun to sit through, and with the very real possibility of a painful ending.

"John Kerry: Kerry's challenge, in a nutshell, is to prove that he's more a maverick with widespread appeal like John McCain than a ringer -- la Michael Dukakis with little appeal outside of the Northeast corridor. As Republican consultant Ron Kaufman said of Kerry's presidential bid this week, 'I don't think God is good enough to give us another Massachusetts Democrat to run against.' .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

On to the Hill, which has finally swallowed the Bush bill to reorganize the government, says the New York Times:

"The Senate voted today to reorganize elements of a scattered federal government around the intensely focused goal of combating terrorism, approving .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. the creation of a huge Department of Homeland Security that represents Washington's biggest transformation in 50 years.

"Ending months of rancorous debate on the new department, the Senate approved the bill on a 90-to-9 vote that disguised the deep misgivings many Democrats still harbor about President Bush's design for the agency. Only after urgent phone calls from the president and last-minute promises by Republican leaders to eliminate several special-interest business provisions did wavering moderates from both parties agree to the final vote.

"The House approved the same bill last week, and after a few technical differences between the bills are resolved, the bill is expected to be on the president's desk for signature before month's end. Even so, it will likely be years before the new department has fully assumed all of its functions. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"The department, and Mr. Bush's plan to eliminate job security, became one of the most divisive issues in the midterm elections, and the decision to fight Mr. Bush's plans helped cost two Democratic senators their jobs and their party control over the Senate.

"Even in the last week, Democrats became incensed at a last-minute move by House Republican leaders to include a series of pro-business provisions in the bill. Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, called the move 'shabby government' and said the Republicans should be ashamed of such late-night actions.

"But the Democratic effort to strip the bill of the provisions fell short today on a 47-to-52 vote that came after extensive arm-twisting by President Bush of wavering senators. Three Democrats and three moderate Republicans said they were persuaded to vote the president's way after the Republicans promised to alter three of the most bitterly contested provisions early next year."

Here comes the fun part -- the junk the GOP loaded up the bill with:

"The three provisions would establish a university research center for Homeland Security, most probably at Texas A&M University; allow many businesses who have left the country to evade federal taxes to contract with the new department; and would provide legal protection to companies that make ingredients for vaccines."

Hey, Dick Armey always takes care of Texas A&M.

Tom Ridge has been pounded by the press, but the Philadelphia Inquirer gives him his due:

"Pick any point in the last year and the thinking seemed to be that Tom Ridge was sinking.

"Despite Ridge's coveted office in the White House's West Wing and a grand title -- director of homeland security -- critics said he lacked the clout, budgetary authority, and savvy to leapfrog powerful cabinet secretaries and play more than a symbolic role in protecting the nation from terrorist attack. It looked as if he might be on his way out.

"But the former Pennsylvania governor persevered, and now Bush administration officials have said he is the President's choice to lead the new Homeland Security Department. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Whether Ridge is the best pick remains the subject of fierce debate. Some think he lacks a prickly streak essential to wringing intelligence information from entrenched agencies such as the FBI and CIA, neither of which will answer to the new cabinet secretary. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. Since he was sworn in 13 months ago in the White House East Room, Ridge has proven to be the sort of aide Bush prizes -- loyal, quiet, uncomplaining."

Sounds like the Bushies could be taking on a core constituency, according to this Wall Street Journal report:

"Amid simmering debate over U.S. dependence on Middle East oil, the Bush administration is considering a proposal to require sport-utility vehicles and other light trucks to achieve higher rates of fuel efficiency. The move would be the first increase in such government-mandated targets since 1996.

"Top regulatory officials are reviewing a proposal drafted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to raise standards by roughly half a mile a gallon each year in the 2005-2007 model years -- or a total of 1.5 miles a gallon by 2007. Although it remains in draft form and could be drastically rewritten, it is likely to encounter strong resistance from auto makers, officials familiar with the plans said."

And from the SUV moms of the world.

The New Republic is less than impressed with Nancy Pelosi's performance on "Meet the Press":

"Consider her response to Tim Russert's basic question about the threat Saddam Hussein poses to the United States. This of course is the question around which U.S. foreign policy must revolve. But Pelosi's response was both insubstantial and misleading. 'Saddam Hussein certainly has chemical and biological weapons,' she said. 'There's no question about that. He has some delivery system capacity. But at [the time of the congressional Iraq debate], the administration was saying that there was going to be a launch of a nuclear weapon to the U.S.'

"What a peculiar statement. Not only did Pelosi offer little indication of how great a threat she sees, she seemed to lob a charge of dishonesty at the White House. But the Bush administration, while prone to other exaggerations, has never pretended that there is an imminent threat of Iraq using a nuclear weapon against America. To the contrary, Bush's policy of 'pre-emption' has been driven not by the existence of such a threat, but by the imperative of preventing it from materializing. Does Pelosi not recognize the difference?

"Pelosi seemed similarly unsure of herself on other Iraq-related questions. When Russert asked if she supports 'intrusive' U.N. weapons inspections or some less aggressive approach, she punted. 'I believe the inspections should be effective'--now there's a bold position!--'so we may have to find some calibration between the two.' Then she added: 'But one thing is for sure, we have to find out what we're going in there to look for.' Well, yes--whatever that means.

"How dovish is Pelosi on Iraq? Amazingly, she told Russert that if she had it to do over again, she would not change her vote against the 1991 Gulf War--'on the basis of the information that I had at the time.' Perhaps Pelosi deserves credit for standing by her decision. But there's clearly something worrisome about her reluctance to admit she made a mistake. If this is what the future of Democratic foreign-policy leadership looks like, the party is in serious trouble indeed."

On the other hand, she's been on the job for a week.

Eric Alterman is worried about the surveillance aspects of the homeland security bill -- and the man in charge:

"To this computerized dossier on your private life from commercial sources, add every piece of information that government has about you -- passport application, driver's license and bridge toll records, judicial and divorce records, complaints from nosy neighbors to the F.B.I., your lifetime paper trail plus the latest hidden camera surveillance -- and you have the supersnoop's dream: a 'Total Information Awareness' about every U.S. citizen.

"Oh, and guess who's in charge? John Poindexter, the man who, during the Reagan/Bush administration, claimed under oath that he approved the payoff to the Contras of the profits garnered from selling missiles to terrorists without even so much as mentioning it to President Reagan. He did this, he said at the time, 'on my own authority' in order to 'preserve deniability.'

"But Poindexter could not produce a single piece of paper to support this alarming contention. He also admitted to discussing the implementation of a 'fall guy' plan should the program ever become public, and repeatedly misled Congress about his own involvement in order to hide the illegal program. While being questioned during the Iran-Contra hearings, Poindexter helpfully explained: 'I didn't want Congress to know the details of how we were implementing the president's policy.' To prevent this, he was willing, as he put it, to substitute an 'untruth,' which he did repeatedly."

Finally, we often quote Salon here, even as it continues to struggle financially with a stock worth 7 cents:

"Fighting for survival, the online magazine has introduced an unusual advertising program that waives subscription fees for readers willing to wade through an interactive commercial," the Associated Press reports.

"Salon Media Group Inc. is offering 'Ultramercials' sponsored by Mercedes-Benz as an alternative to paying for premium access, which costs from $18.50 to $30 a year. About 45,000 subscribers pay the fees to view 20 percent of the content on Salon's Web site. The remaining 80 percent of Salon's site remains free to all visitors.

"Readers who clicked through all four sections of an ad for Mercedes' E-Class sedan yesterday received a 12-hour pass to Salon's subscription-based content. Visitors can get additional 12-hour passes by sitting through more advertisements on different days. It takes about 10 second to click through the ad."

Maybe we'll try that here. Oh that's right, Media Notes is free.