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Letter From Arizona | The Nation

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Letter From Arizona

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Phoenix, Arizona

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

Whatever scant joy Arizona supporters of Howard Dean could wring from Tuesday night's election results lasted for exactly one hour and fifteen minutes. Though the polls closed here at 7 pm, there was--for some reason--no hard count of returns available on TV until 8:15. John Kerry had already been projected the winner, but the hope among the Dean supporters gathered in the local Pipe Fitters union hall was that their man might finish a strong second.

Those hopes were buoyed by early returns drifting in from the caucuses in neighboring New Mexico, which had Dr. Dean in a three-way dead heat with Wesley Clark and Kerry. Maybe Dean really was making a comeback.

But seventy-five minutes into the evening, it all crashed. Cable news reports tallied an overwhelming 43 percent victory for Kerry in Arizona, Dean finishing a disappointing third with 14 percent, barely half of second-place runner Clark. In New Mexico, meanwhile, Dean's 26 percent first-place tie began to sink as more votes were counted, finally settling, again, in lowly third place with 16 percent.

Indeed, Dean finished no higher than third in any of the seven states voting Tuesday and slumped into bare single digits in the keystone states of Missouri and South Carolina.

After his Iowa and New Hampshire defeats, short on money and in the midst of a staff shakeup, Dean as much as conceded all seven states in "Junior Tuesday," choosing to focus resources on this coming Saturday's Washington and Michigan primaries. Not to mention liberal Wisconsin on February 17 and the delegate-fat California race on March 2.

But in no viable scenario was the Dean campaign willing to imagine the scope of this Tuesday's eventual defeat. Dean's retrenchment strategy banked on him coming out of this round of voting as the Next To The Last Man Standing, the only clear surviving alternative to the new front-runner, Kerry.

"What we need to be able to play in California is a clean-cut, clear distinction between John Kerry and Howard Dean," Rick Jacobs, Dean's campaign chair for the Golden State, told me over the weekend as he passed through Arizona. "Just look at Arnold's victory," Jacobs continued. "People in California want to vote for change." Schwarzenegger, of course, had mega-celebrity notoriety and attracted immeasurable amounts of free media. A concerted statewide California television campaign otherwise costs upward of a million dollars per week, out of reach for the Dean organization, which shot most of its wad in Iowa and New Hampshire.

"Exactly," agreed Jacobs, himself a professional financial manager. But, he said, Dean could get that sort of free media in California if the dynamics of the Democratic race would boil down to a dramatic two-man Kerry-Dean showdown. Said Jacobs, "It has to be the classic Insider with a long record wrapped around his neck against an Insurgent with a fresh message."

But given Tuesday's results, with Kerry winning five states handily, John Edwards winning South Carolina and Clark taking Oklahoma, the Dean campaign is attracting media attention only for its immediate risk of extinction.

The "movement" atmosphere within the Dean campaign is both its strength and weakness--strength because of its grassroots enthusiasm, weakness because it generates a sometimes blinding insularity. Dean's Arizona campaign rallies boiled with enthusiasm this past weekend but most voters, even Democratic voters, never go to a campaign rally--or any political rally, for that matter.

Dean vows to make a stand in Washington and Michigan on Saturday, but in union-rich Michigan he is already down 3 to 1 against Kerry in the polls. The most realistic question for Dean supporters is not where is he likely going to win (most likely nowhere), but rather in which if any other campaign will they now invest their passion, energy and hopes. The experience of the two Jesse Jackson campaigns in the 1980s as well as Jerry Brown's 1992 quest tells us that insurgent candidacies leave little if any trace of a movement in their wake because, ultimately, they are all about the person of the candidate.

The dilemma of where-to-go when Dean pulls out was emotionally debated this weekend among a group of "Cyclists for Dean," who had come from Los Angeles to pedal and canvass the precincts of Tucson. "I don't think Kerry has much integrity, given how he voted on the war," said one volunteer as he mounted his bike. "But if I have to, I'll work for him just as hard as I am for Dean. The point is to defeat Bush."

But his canvassing partner sharply disagreed. "I can't say that. I just can't say that," she said strapping on her helmet. "I'll vote for Kerry if I have to. But I won't work for him like this. I don't love Kerry like I love Dean. Kerry can be voted for. But Kerry can't be loved."

The debate no doubt continued as they spent the morning knocking on doors, just as it must be raging tonight in the hearts and minds of Dean supporters across the country. Call it the Deaniac Dilemma.

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