The race for the Democratic presidential nomination is not over. In fact, it’s getting a lot more interesting. Here are some notes on where the contest now stands:
EDWARDS HAS A WAY WITH WORDS: Much is made of North Carolina Senator John Edwards’ populist stump speech, with its emotional call for closing the gap between “the two Americas” — one for the wealthy recipients of George W. Bush’s tax cuts, the other for working families that struggle to meet health care, housing and education costs at a time when their jobs are threatened by free-trade policies. But Edwards is actually at his best when he tosses off one liners that seem to sum up the political moment. “Wisconsin does not want a coronation,” Edwards declared February 11, as he began what then looked like an uphill campaign in the state that six days later handed him a strong second place finish and a chance to compete one-on-one in the March 2 “Super Tuesday” primaries with Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. When Kerry seemed to be claiming the nomination in the final debate before the Wisconsin primary, Edwards got off the best line of the night with his jab, “Not so fast, John Kerry.” And after Wisconsin voters moved him to within six points of Kerry — for one of the closest primary finishes so far in the campaign — a jubilant Edwards took the stage at Milwaukee’s Serb Hall and declared, “Today, the voters in Wisconsin sent a clear message. The message was this: Objects in your mirror may be closer than they appear.”
KERRY HAS NO WAY WITH WORDS: Shaken by the close race in Wisconsin, which required him to deliver his victory speech almost an hour after he had planned to do so, Kerry played rough. The Massachusetts senator waited until Edwards took the stage to celebrate his showing, and then strode to the microphone at his own party. Television networks make it a rule to go to the winner when he appears to give his victory speech, even if that means cutting off another candidate. Kerry aides knew that and took full advantage of the opportunity to block Edwards. But they were not well served by the decision. Kerry’s speech was long, unfocused and deadly dull. It lacked even the enthusiasm that the senator showed after his important wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. One reporter who has covered Kerry for two decades said as the address dragged on, “This is the worst I’ve ever heard him.” In fairness, that was an extreme statement. Kerry is a famously uninspiring orator, whose speaking style has improved only marginally during the course of the campaign. But his speech Tuesday night, at a time when he should have been rallying the troops with a passionate call to close the deal and make him the Democratic nominee, instead provided a good explanation for why many Democrats will take a second look at Edwards.
SECOND PLACE WON’T CUT IT ANYMORE: The Edwards campaign denies that they are cherry picking primary contests in which to compete with Kerry on March 2. But the truth is that Edwards has skipped a lot of contests so far. And it looks like he is preparing to skip a lot more between now and Super Tuesday. As of now, the North Carolina senator’s campaign is clearly focused on Ohio, Georgia and upstate New York — areas where the candidates anti–NAFTA message ought to play well. Unfortunately, a lot of other states are voting on Super Tuesday, including California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Vermont. Additionally, caucuses will be held in Hawaii and Idaho on February 24, as will a primary in Utah. It gets harder for Edwards to claim to be seriously competing for the nomination if he cedes Hawaii, Idaho and Utah to Kerry on the 24th and then skips delegate-rich states such as Maryland and Minnesota, and potentially California, on March 2. If he sticks to this strategy — which is dictated, at least for now, by a lack of funds to run the sort of intensive television-advertising campaign that he did in South Carolina and Wisconsin — he runs a huge risk. If he concentrates on Ohio, Georgia and New York, he will need to win them. It will no longer be possible to spin second-place finishes as “moral victories.”