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Kerry faces big test in internet storm about mystery woman
By Alec Russell and David Rennie in Washington
The campaign of Senator John Kerry, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, faced its first media storm last night after a Right-wing website alleged that he had asked a woman to leave the country for personal reasons.
Mr Kerry's campaign did not respond to the allegation on the Drudge Report, a news tipster, most famous for disclosing that Bill Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern. When contacted, the Kerry campaign had no immediate comment.
Waiting in the wings: Democratic hopeful, John Kerry
But Democratic sources blamed the allegation on Republican "dirty tricks". They said it marked the long-expected start of a campaign from the Right to smear the frontrunner and damage his chances of fighting a strong campaign against President George W Bush.
The report caused anguish among grassroots party activists just a day after it seemed that Mr Kerry, a decorated Vietnam war veteran, had been virtually crowned as the nominee after a remarkably swift and benign campaign.
The report also alleged that General Wesley Clark, who bowed out of the race on Wednesday, told reporters: "Kerry will implode over an intern issue."
Bill Buck, the national press secretary for the Clark campaign, said: "We do not respond to Right-wing internet postings in any way, shape or form."
Two hours after the report first appeared on the internet, Gen Clark's campaign rushed to his aid, indicating that the retired general would endorse Mr Kerry today.
Drudge claimed that several prominent news organisations in Washington have been investigating the rumours. But some of those named denied this.
The Drudge Report said the allegation explained why Howard Dean, the former frontrunner, was now vowing to fight on, having earlier pledged to bow out if he lost the next big contest on Tuesday.
Diehard Dean supporters exulted on internet forums at the news that the man who usurped their hero's position as favourite was at the centre of his own media storm.
Deaniacs remain bitter at what they perceive as the media's destruction of their candidate, who only a month ago led the polls. Last night Mr Kerry's campaign internet forum for activists was seething with accusations of Republican dirty tricks.
Mr Kerry took the lead in the race for the nomination three weeks ago when he won the first contest, the Iowa caucuses, since when he has won 11 out of the following 13 contests.
Following his victories in the south on Tuesday, in contests in Virginia and Tennessee, he was deemed to have proved his national credentials and to have all but eliminated his remaining rivals' hopes.
But he has always acknowledged that he will have to wait until March 2, when many of the big states vote, to secure a majority of the delegates who are allocated by each victory, to ensure he is chosen as the nominee at the party's convention in July.
The allegation on the Drudge Report provided the first test of the Kerry campaign under fire. While he has rampaged from victory to victory, it has been widely acknowledged that Mr Kerry has been spared the scrutiny normally devoted to frontrunners.
He has benefited from this year's accelerated timetable of the primaries and the overwhelming desire of Democrats of all stripes to unite and find the candidate who is best able to beat President George W Bush.
Mr Kerry was in Washington yesterday for strategy meetings and was expected to fly to Wisconsin today ahead of Tuesday's primary.