The most flattering compliment that an American presidential candidate can pay to a rival is to dish the dirt on him. That allegations of scandal are starting to appear against Senator John Kerry, almost nine months before the election, is the surest sign yet that the Democratic nomination is Mr Kerry's to lose. President Bush, his ratings declining by the day, needs to unsettle the increasingly presidential Senator before his candidacy is fully established.
No one needed to claim authorship of the charge that appeared against Senator Kerry on Matt Drudge's website earlier this week. Drudge is of the unapologetic political right. It was he who picked up the first allegations about Bill Clinton and "an intern" after the story had been rejected by Newsweek. That was the start of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and an 18-month media orgy that left the man and his presidency tarnished.
The allegations against John Kerry seem tame by comparison. But then they are mere warning shots. In essence, they say that Kerry had a flirtation a few years ago with an young intern who was recently encouraged to leave the country for the duration of the election campaign. Yesterday, Drudge gleefully quoted from newspaper stories elaborating on the first allegations. The young woman's father was quoted as calling Kerry a "sleaze-bag". The website also added "context": a gentle reminder that four years ago Al Gore rejected Kerry as his running mate in part because of rumours about womanising.
After Clinton, of course, there is no guarantee that American voters will judge womanising, including with a much younger "intern", to disqualify a man from the country's highest office. Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives, but he was acquitted in the trial by Senate and more than acquitted by the country at large. And his "crimes" went much further than whatever he may or may not have done with Monica. He was, after all, President and he misbehaved on the sacrosanct territory of the White House. He was guilty of hypocrisy: sexual harassment in the workplace was something he had spoken out against. And he lied - strictly speaking, it depends on the precise interpretation of the words - when he memorably jabbed his finger in the air and said on camera: "I did not have sex with that woman..."
So the allegations against Kerry have a very long way to go before they even approach a Monica-scandal in the making. Beyond doubt, however, is that the more plausible a candidate Kerry (or anyone else) becomes, the more vicious will be the slurs - and the Bush clan has a track record of destroying opponents that is second to none.
It was Bush's father - or rather his campaign managers - who demolished his Democrat opponent, Michael Dukakis, in 1988 by ruthlessly exposing him as a bleeding-heart liberal of the most foolish variety. Dukakis did not have the most expert handlers: Clinton, for instance, would never have allowed himself to be photographed peering ridiculously out of a tank. Dukakis, however, was skewered by a televised debate question that asked whether he would still oppose the death penalty even if his wife had been raped and murdered. Dukakis's legalistic reply convinced Middle America that he was not only dangerously liberal, but also cold and indifferent towards the fate of his wife.
George W Bush trapped his increasingly popular rival, John McCain, in a similar pincer during the 2000 Republican primaries. McCain, whose populist touch and Vietnam prisoner-of-war past, had proved a far more dangerous rival than the Bush camp had anticipated. He was finally trapped by a series of adverts which accused him of callousness towards breast-cancer sufferers because he had opposed a lavish spending bill in which money earmarked for breast-cancer research was a tiny part. McCain defended his vote on the grounds that the bill as a whole was a waste of public money designed to collect electoral favours ("pork"). But the damage was done, and it helped John McCain not a jot that his own sister had died from breast cancer. The adverts were vicious, immoral - and incontestable. McCain had lost the women's vote, the health-care vote and moderate Republicans all in one.
Perhaps the best news for Kerry is that General Wesley Clark, who withdrew from the campaign this week, has offered his endorsement. Gen Clark brings not just intellectual weight to the Kerry campaign and a southern dimension. He brings a clutch of media-savvy operators from Bill Clinton's White House. Who better to parry the blows that will certainly rain down on John Kerry once his nomination is secure than the people who kept Clinton in the White House. Let the most vindictive and most scurrilous man win!