By RUPERT CORNWELL in Washington

Senator John Kerry yesterday dropped an early bombshell into the United States election campaign by claiming that some foreign leaders had already told him they wanted him to beat President George W. Bush in November.

His remark drew a mocking response from the White House, where officials pointed out that "US voters, not foreign leaders, decide who becomes President".

But it shows how foreign policy - usually a low-ranking election issue - may be front and centre of the battle this time.

Kerry named no names at a fundraiser in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but said: "I've met foreign leaders who can't go out and say this publicly but, boy, they look at you and say, 'You've got to win this. You've got to beat this guy. We need a new policy'."

The all-but-certain Democratic nominee was in Florida before primaries there and in three other southern states today.

After the withdrawal of Kerry's sole remaining serious rival, Senator John Edwards, the results are a foregone conclusion - but Florida in November is likely to be scarcely less closely contested than in 2000.

Then, Al Gore lost the state - and with it the entire election - by 537 votes.

Kerry's latest sally underlines how his advisers have decided that attack is the best means of defence in what many analysts expect to be one of the roughest campaigns in recent history.

Election day is still almost eight months off, but Kerry is campaigning as if it were next week.

He is ripping into the President across the board, from domestic issues such as the economy and health care to the White House's handling of the crises in Iraq, Afghanistan and Haiti, and allowing no attack by the Bush campaign to go unanswered.

But his dragging of unspecified foreign leaders into the fray could be risky. Republican strategists may use his words to depict him as a virtual agent of other countries.

There are bound to be insinuations, too, that among the "foreign leaders" in question are those of France and Germany, still unpopular in the US after their opposition to the invasion of Iraq last year.

On the eve of that war, when Kerry appeared the front-runner, White House aides were even letting it be known that he "looked French".

- INDEPENDENT

Herald Feature: US Election

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