The New Hampshire Democratic presidential debate was supposed to be the Super Bowl of the primary season face-offs.
It was–only in that it was long and dull and marked by uninspiring performances, which sadly is often what happens in the NFL championship match. Unfortunately, this event lacked interesting commercials.
As the two hours dragged by, many of the 400 journalists in the media watching room–a gymnasium on the campus of St. Anselm College–rolled their eyes and checked their watches. It was five days before the first primary of 2004, and expectations had been high. The surprising results in Iowa had injected additional drama into the New Hampshire contest. Could Dean, the heretofore Internet-fueled powerhouse of the race, recover from his third-place finish and the shriek heard around the world? Could John Kerry, the come-from-behind victor of Iowa, exploit his Midwest win and outperform the rest of the pack in his native New England? How would Wesley Clark, the born-recently Democrat who had skipped Iowa, fare against the battle-scarred veterans of the caucuses? Could John Edwards, the sunnier candidate, outshine his rivals?
Political journalists–myself included–thought this debate could be the decisive moment in a decisive contest.
We were wrong.
Several hours before the debate, I ran into a Clark adviser at a Manchester restaurant. What’s the General’s goal for tonight? I asked. “To do okay,” the Clark lieutenant deadpanned. “Seriously,” I replied. He countered, “I am being serious.”
It was as if all the candidates were aiming for the same bar: okayness. In part, that was due to the debate’s structure: four journalists asking questions of the candidates that permitted no give and take between the contenders. It was also due to what has become known as the Lesson of Iowa: going negative hurts. Few elbows were thrown. No spitballs were hurled. Candidates stuck to their stump speeches. Edwards noted that people are “hungry for change in America. They’re hungry for change in Washington, D.C. And the truth is, the truth is, that I’m somebody who’s been in Washington long enough to see what’s wrong with it and how it needs to be changed.” Kerry maintained he wanted to take on “special interests” and that he had national security credentials that would allow him to go toe-to-toe with Bush. Joseph Lieberman stressed his “values” and his enthusiastic support for the war in Iraq. Clark pushed his experience as an executive and professed his fealty to Democratic Party principles. Dennis Kucinich blasted the Nafta trade accord and insisted he was the most antiwar candidate, claiming his plan to end the U.S. occupation in Iraq could bring American troops home within 90 days and noting that Dean would let U.S. forces remain there perhaps for years.
Dean had the most to prove–or disprove. He tried to reposition himself as an ex-governor who has demonstrated the ability to get things done (such as expanding health care coverage to most Vermont residents and balancing the state’s budget) and who has the courage to tell inconvenient truths and stand up for principles even if they are unpopular (such as opposing the war and backing civil unions for gays and lesbians). He stayed in control. There was little fiery talk of taking back America with an insurgent campaign.