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'Mr. Nice Guy' Feels the Heat

Running for the Democratic nomination for president has taught John Edwards some things he did not know about American politics. And not all of what the North Carolina senator has learned is encouraging.

For instance, Edwards says, he has come to understand why campaigns so frequently turn so very ugly. As the candidate who many analysts see as the last contender with a chance to derail the juggernaut that is propelling Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry toward the party's nomination, Edwards says he has come under intense pressure to attack the frontrunner.

"You can't imagine the pressure to go negative," says Edwards. "There are so many people who say, ‘This is what you have to do to win it.'"

In high-stakes contests, candidates do not merely get pressure from campaign consultants to savage their opponents in attack ads on television and take-no-prisoners mailings. The push to go negative can also come from prominent backers and financial contributors who want to make sure they are investing in a campaign that will go the distance.

Such prodding is usually felt behind-the-scenes. But, for Edwards, the pressure has moved out of the political backrooms and into the open.

In recent days, the first-term senator, who beat Kerry in South Carolina and has posted solid second-place finishes in caucuses and primaries elsewhere, has used an issues-based, populist campaign against corporate free-trade deals to battle his way into second place behind Kerry in polls of likely voters in tomorrow's Wisconsin primary. With Kerry having already secured wins in fourteen of sixteen caucus and primary contests so far, many analysts say Wisconsin is a make-or-break state for Edwards and the candidate who is running third in most polls, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Yet, while Dean has attacked Kerry, Edwards has eschewed negative campaigning. That has helped him retain his "Mr. Nice Guy" reputation. And it has won endorsements from some prominent Democrats, such as Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, the progressive mayor of Madison, Wisconsin's second-largest city. Cieslewicz said he was attracted to Edwards in part because of the senator's clean campaign.

Yet, while everyone says they want campaigns to be upbeat, Edwards is taking hits for not hitting his opponents. A Sunday New York Times article on Edwards appeared beneath the headline, "Do You Need to Go Negative to Topple a Front-Runner?"

"Many Democratic strategists say that as he faces a critical primary in Wisconsin on Tuesday, it is time for Mr. Edwards to offer voters a reason they should not vote for Mr. Kerry," noted the Times, above a quote form Democratic strategist Bill Carrick suggesting that a candidate in the position where the North Carolinian finds himself must launch "some substantial attack" in order to close the gap.

But Edwards shows no signs of ditching his resolutely positive appeal. In last night's final debate before the primary, he would only go so far as to challenge suggestions that Kerry had essentially secured the nomination, exclaiming, "Not so fast, John Kerry."

Political pundits like to say that the reason candidates go negative is because "negative works." But Edwards does not think that is necessarily the case in presidential primaries.

"I don't think that's what voters want," Edwards said in an interview before Sunday's debate. "Voters want something bigger. They want a strong, optimistic vision for the country. They want to hear real ideas about what any of us would do as president, what I would do as president. I think it's fine to point out differences to voters, for them to know what the policy differences are between me and Sen. Kerry. But that's not really the thrust of what voters are looking for. They're looking for someone who they think can be president, not someone who can run another candidate down."

While the prodding to go negative is strong now, as state and national media speculates that a big Kerry win in Wisconsin could effectively end the competition, Edwards says it was actually worse before he surprised the pundits to beat out Dean and former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt in Iowa. In Iowa, Kerry, Dean and Gephardt all took shots at one another. But Edwards stayed above -- or, at least, outside -- the fray. The North Carolinian had to struggle to stay out of the partisan bickering, however.

"The pressures were extraordinary back in late December and early January because I wasn't moving then," recalls Edwards. "I was way back in the polls, and everyone said, ‘You don't have a chance. You better start attacking.' But that didn't ever feel right to me. I stayed true to what I believed, and it worked."

Now, Edwards hopes that his refusal to attack other candidates may help him to secure the support of Wisconsinites who had been committed to Gephardt and another candidate who has left the race, retired Gen. Wesley Clark. And, though Dean remains in the running, Edwards thinks he could attract backers of the battered Vermonter.

"I'm more of an outsider. I have new, fresh ideas about how we change this country to make it work for everybody, so I think that my candidacy does have a lot of appeal for people who have supported Gov. Dean," says Edwards.

Last week, in an interview with CBS News, Dean actually gave some encouragement to the Edwards candidacy. "I think that Sen. Kerry has an enormous advantage," Dean said, referring to momentum Kerry has gained with each successive caucus and primary win. "My fear is that he won't be the strongest Democratic candidate. I've actually said on the record that I think Sen. Edwards would be a stronger candidate against George Bush than Sen. Kerry because when Sen. Kerry's record is examined by the public at a more leisurely time when we're not having primaries every week, he's going to turn out be just like George Bush."

Even with an assist from Dean, Edwards would not attack his leading rival. But Edwards did note that he shared Dean's view that he would be the stronger nominee.

The kind words from Dean regarding Edwards recall an incident in the 1992 Democratic primary for a Wisconsin US Senate seat. The frontrunners in that race, former US Rep. Jim Moody and businessman Joe Checota, attacked each other relentlessly. Things got so bitter that, in one of the last debates, Checota said Democrats who did not choose to vote for him should refrain from backing Moody and instead support a third candidate who had eschewed negative campaigning, Russ Feingold. Feingold won that primary and, in November, was elected to the Senate.

"I'm completely familiar with that race that put Russ Feingold in the Senate," Edwards said on Sunday. "That's part of what makes me know that staying positive can work in a Democratic primary in Wisconsin."

Tax Cheats

We all know that Halliburton is gouging taxpayers--according to the Pentagon, Vice President Cheney's old company overcharged the US government by as much as $61 million for fuel in Iraq. But now we learn that more than 27,000 military contractors, or about one in nine, are evading taxes and still continuing to win new government business.

According to the General Accounting Office, these tax cheats owed an estimated $3 billion at the end of 2002, mainly in Social Security and other payroll taxes, including Medicare, that were diverted for business or personal use instead of being sent to the government. (Lesser amounts were owed in income taxes).

In one 2002 case, the New York Times reports, a company providing dining, security and custodial services to military bases received $3.5 million in payments from the Defense Department despite owing almost $10 million to the government. (Shockingly, the GAO estimated that the Defense Department could have collected $100 million in 2002 by offsetting payments to delinquent companies still on its payroll.)

The http://www.senate.gov/~gov_affairs/index.cfm?Fuseaction= Subcommittees.Home&SubcommitteeID=11&Initials=PSI"> Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has scheduled a hearing this Thursday to look into what committee chair Norm Coleman calls "an outrageous situation." At present, federal law does not bar contractors with unpaid federal taxes from obtaining new government contracts. (The GAO has recommended policy options for barring contracts to those who abuse the federal tax system.)

At a time when $200 million would purchase enough ceramic body armor--the kind that usually works, the kind the Pentagon wouldn't splurge for--to protect almost 150,000 GIs in Iraq, Republicans and Democrats should demand that these tax cheats pay up.

W's AWOL Spin Update!

[UPDATE: On February 13, the White House released what it said were Bush's full military records. Reporters were handed two-inch stacks of papers and allowed to examine--but not take--pages of his medicalrecords. The Associated Press reported, "the records provided no evidence Bush served in Alabama." The Washington Post noted that these records contain "numerous gaps in the last two years" of his Guard service--that is, the time period in question. Will this release end the controversy? Look for more here soon....And for complete coverage of the Bush AWOL scandal scroll down for reports filed earlier this week.]

It seems the Bush White House cannot mount its defense of George W. Bush's Air National Guard service without raising more questions.

On February 12, Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, said that the White House had received about 30 pages of medical records from Bush's Guard file. He said they contain "nothing unusual." Then why won't the administration release them--especially after Bush promised on Meet the Press to make his entire file available? Bartlett also acknowledged that the administration has obtained Bush's complete military record from the Air Reserve Personnel Center in Denver. That, too, is not being made public (at least, not yet).

Retired National Guard officials say that these records should include material detailing what Bush did in Alabama. These documents could be the final word--if they indicate that Bush did appear at Alabama and perform the duty he was obligated to do and if they document that he reported back to his Houston base once he returned from Alabama after the November 1972 election (remember, Bush's file includes an annual performance review dated May 2, 1973, that says he had not been seen at the Houston base for a year) and if they explain why Bush, who had trained as a fighter pilot, failed to take a flight physical exam and was removed from flight status.

Then there's the this-just-in account from John "Bill" Calhoun, a Republican businessman in Atlanta. The Washington Post reported that "a Republican close to Bush" supplied the newspaper the phone number of Calhoun, who was an officer with the Alabama Air National Guard in 1972. Calhoun told the Post that he saw Bush sign in eight to ten times for duty at the 187th Tactical Reconnaissance Group at Dannelly Field in Montgomery from May to October 1972. Calhoun said, "He'd sit on my couch and read training manuals and accident reports and stuff like that."

Four years ago, when the where-was-W story broke (thanks to a piece by The Boston Globe's Walter Robinson), the Bush campaign promised it would release names of individuals who had served with Bush in Alabama. It never did. The campaign did provide the name of a former girlfriend, but she only said that Bush had told her that he had to report for duty in Alabama; she could not attest that he actually did. Finally, Bush has one witness--out of the 600 to 700 people who served at the Alabama base in 1972.

But Calhoun's account is contradicted by other information--including the few pages of records that the White House released earlier this week. Calhoun says that Bush showed up for duty several times from May to October 1972. But the payment and retirement records the White House handed out three days earlier show that Bush received no pay or attendance credits from April until the end of October 1972. Why, then, is Calhoun's account not in sync with the documents that, according to the White House, settles the matter?

Moreover, the paper trail to date indicates that Bush was not supposed to report to this Montgomery base until October 1972. This is the chronology.

* In May of 1972, Bush moved to Alabama to work on the Senate campaign of a family friend. He asked the Guard to do "equivalent training" at a unit there, and he won approval to join a unit temporarily at Maxwell Air Force Base. But that unit had no airplane or pilots, and the Air Reserve Personnel Center ultimately disallowed this transfer, as an investigation published by TomPaine.com first noted in 2000.

* In September 1972, Bush asked to do duty at Dannelly Field in Montgomery and permission was granted.

The commander of that base and his deputy have said they do not recall Bush reporting for duty. The White House has produced pay sheet summaries that show Bush was paid for duty performed on October 28 and 29 and November 11 through 14 in 1972. These records do not state what duty was performed or where. But if they are indeed accurate (as the White House claims), they indicate Bush performed no other duty from May to December 1972. The question is, how could Calhoun have seen Bush eight to ten times from May to October at Dannelly Field if the available record states that Bush was not told to report to Dannelly Field until September and that Bush did not receive any payment or attendance credits in that May-to-October period other than for two days at the end of October?

Three decades is a long time, and perhaps Calhoun's memory is off on the dates. But Bush's inability to produce a witness prior until now and his unwillingness to provide any recollections of what he did when he served in Alabama (or what he did regarding the Guard when he returned to Houston) are reasons to be wary of late-in-the-game eyewitness testimony that is facilitated by an unnamed "Republican close to Bush." Would GOPers--or a single GOPer--concoct a fake alibi for Bush? Perhaps. As noted below, one former National Guard official charges that a Bush aide cleaned out portions of Bush's military records in 1997--an allegation denied by the White House.

There may be a legitimate explanation for the contradictions between Calhoun's recollections and the documents. Could Bush have been showing up "unofficially" at Dannelly Field? Was there a record-keeping screw-up regarding his request to do his time at that base? But given the dishonest spin the White House has resorted to in trying to defuse the AWOL controversy--and given Bush's broken promise--there is reason to be suspicious of any information that is selective, unconfirmed or contradicted. That is why that at this point Bush has only one honorable option: release the records.

******************

This week's initial "Capital Games" report on Bush's AWOL controversy and two updates

George W. Bush is lucky that Scott McClellan is not his lawyer and that the White House press briefing room is not a courtroom.

On February 10, the Bush White House tried to rid itself of the allegation that Bush ducked out of his Air National Guard Service from May 1972 to May 1973. Two days earlier on Meet the Press, Bush maintained, "I did report, otherwise I wouldn't have been honorably discharged." But he offered no details. He did not describe what drills he did; he did not mention anyone with whom he served during the time in question. When host Tim Russert asked if he would open up his "entire" file and release "everything to settle this," Bush said, "Yeah. Absolutely."

And two days later, McClellan was in the briefing room holding up new documents that he claimed proved Bush had "fulfilled his duties." The key material, which the White House had managed to obtain PDQ from the Air Reserve Personnel Center in Denver--were several pages of microfiche payment sheet summaries that apparently showed Bush was paid several times in the months of October and November 1972 and January and April 1973. McClellan also cited two retirement records that showed Bush had amassed attendance points for these days.

This new material did bolster Bush's defense. But it hardly resolved the issue. Nor did it address the most damning elements of the case against Bush. Most notable of these is the May 2, 1973, annual performance review--signed by two superior officers, who were friends of Bush--that noted, "Lt. Bush has not been observed at" his home base unit in Houston for the past year. Bush has said he spent about half of that period reporting to a Guard base in Alabama, while he was temporarily living there. The new records do not explain why the commander of that unit and his administrative officer say they never saw Bush. Nor do they explain why the Bush campaign in 2000 failed to keep its promise to produce the names of people who had served with Bush in Alabama. Nor do these records explain why Bush, who had been trained as fighter pilot, failed to take a flight physical during the year in question and was grounded. Nor do they back up the 2000 Bush campaign's explanation that Bush did not take a flight physical because he was living in Alabama and his personal doctor was in Houston. (Flight physicals are administered by military physicians, and there were flight physicians at the base in Alabama where Bush says he served.)

The records hailed by the White House only demonstrate that Bush received payments and credit for a modest amount of days. They do not show what he did and where he did it. Those sorts of records detailing Bush's service should exist, according to military experts. But that is not what the White House handed out. Is it possible Bush received payment and credit for days of service that did not happen? Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who served in the National Guard during the Vietnam War, recently wrote that he was routinely paid for Guard duty he never did. Given the other evidence, these pay records are not end-of-story proof.

But what makes the White House case particularly unconvincing is McClellan's performance at the press briefing. It was a remarkable exhibition of dissimulation that deserves to be studied by students of political spin. He avoided remaining questions. He kept insisting that these records meant there was nothing else to discuss. He denied reality and refused to acknowledge there was documentary evidence contradicting Bush's account. He was an automaton: these records showed that he served, these records showed that he served, these records showed that he served.

The first question was a tough one for McClellan. A reporter asked:

The records that you handed out today, and other records that exist, indicate that the President did not perform any Guard duty during the months of December 1972, February or March of 1973. I'm wondering if you can tell us where he was during that period. And also, how is it that he managed to not make the medical requirements to remain on active flight duty status?

The exchange that followed was not edifying.

A: These records verify that he met the requirements necessary to fulfill his duties. These records --

Q: That wasn't my question, Scott.

A: These payroll records --

Q: Scott, that wasn't my question, and you know it wasn't my question. Where was he in December of '72, February and March of '73? And why did he not fulfill the medical requirements to remain on active flight duty status?

A: These records -- these records I'm holding here clearly document the President fulfilling his duties in the National Guard. The president was proud of his service. The president --

Q: I asked a simple question; how about a simple answer?

A: John, if you'll let me address the question, I'm coming to your answer.

But McClellan never got there. He did not reveal where Bush had been during those months. And he said nothing about Bush's failure to take a flight physical.

Another reporter, citing the promise made by the Bush campaign in 2000, asked whether the White House had been able to find anyone who could verify Bush's service in Alabama. McClellan replied: "All the information that we have we shared with you in 2000, that was relevant to this issue....[T]here are some out there that were making outrageous, baseless accusations. It was a shame that they brought it up four years ago. It was a shame that they brought it up again this year. And I think that the facts are very clear from these documents. These documents -- the payroll records and the [attendance] point summaries verify that he was paid for serving and that he met his requirements." In other words, the Bush White House had found no one.

Then came this follow-up from a reporter: "I do think this is important. You know, it might strike some as odd that there isn't anyone who can stand up and say, I served with George W. Bush in Alabama....Particularly because there are people, his superiors who have stepped forward...who have said in the past several years that they have no recollection of him being there and serving. So isn't that odd that nobody -- you can't produce anyone to corroborate what these records purport to show?" McClellan answered, "We're talking about some 30 years ago." But there were 600 to 700 people who served at the Alabama base at that time. Surely, if the White House had to find someone who went to grade school with Bush 45 years ago--and class sizes were not that big back then--they could.

McClellan's most unbelievable statements came after a reporter asked him about the annual performance review that indicated Bush had not reported for duty at his home base in Houston for a year. Let's go to the videotape:

Q: The President's officer effectiveness report, filed by his commanders, Lieutenants Colonel Killean and Harris, both now deceased, for the period 01 May '72 to 30 April, '73, says he has not been observed at this unit, where he was supposed to show up and earning these points on these days....The president said he returned to Texas in November of '72. So some of these dates of service, which are in these [payment] records, ought to have been noted by his commanding officers, who, nevertheless, said, twice, he has not been observed here. Can you explain that?

A: I'm not sure about these specific documents. I'll be glad to take a look at them. But these [newly released] documents show the days on which he was paid for his service.....

Q: So he served, but his commanding officers didn't know it?

A: Again, I don't know the specific documents you're referring to. If you want to bring those to me, I'll be glad to take a look at them and get you the answers to your questions.

McClellan didn't know about this specific document? That would be like Martha Stewart's attorney saying he was not familiar with her stockbroker's assistant's contention that she had sold stock on inside information. This document--first brought to public attention in May 2000 by Walter Robinson of The Boston Globe--is at the core of the case against Bush. If McClellan does not know about it, Bush ought to fire him immediately (or name him head of the CIA).

Later in the press briefing, another reporter took a stab at forcing McClellan to deal with Exhibit A.

Q: After all of the things you repeated here, you cannot explain this contradiction, the fact that his payroll records indicate he was paid for a period of time for fulfilling service, and yet his commanding officers at that time wrote that he was not observed. Can you or can you not explain that contradiction?

A:....I said I would glad to go back and look at the document that he's referencing. I have not --

Q: You know the document he's referencing. Everybody does. His commanders --

A: No, I have not -- I have not seen the document he's referencing.

Q: -- are quoted repeatedly for years --

A: You're talking about quotes -- you're talking about quotes from individuals. And we said for years, going back four years ago, that the president recalls serving and performing his duties.

Q: I understand that, but his commanders do not recall it. And, in fact, they say, that he was not observed. So can you explain the contradiction, or can't you?

A: I've seen some different comments he's -- no, I've seen some different comments made over the recent time period.

Q: I haven't seen any different -- different comments...from his [Houston base] commanders, who said he was not observed. Can you explain the contradiction?

A: Look, I can't speak for those individuals. I can speak for the president of the United States. And I can speak --

Q: -- the documents --

A: And I can speak for the fact that the documents that -- as far as we know, all the documents that are available relevant to this issue demonstrate that the president fulfilled his duties. Are you suggesting these documents do not reflect that?

That's the whole issue. A critical document says Bush was gone for a year. It was signed by two superior officers who were also his buddies. As for the documents McClellan held in his hand, reporters asked him if the White House was maintaining that they proved Bush had actually reported for duty in Alabama.

Q: It's your position that these documents specifically show that he served in Alabama during the period 1972, when he was supposed to be there. Do they specifically show that?

A: No, I think if you look at the documents, what they show are the days on which he was paid, the payroll records. And we previously said that the president recalls serving both in Alabama and in Texas.

Q: I'm not interested in what he recalls. I'm interested in whether these documents specifically show that he was in Alabama and served on the days during the latter part of 1972 --

A: And I just answered that question.

Q: You have not answered that question. You --

A: No, I said -- no, I said, no, in response to your question, Keith.

Q: No, so the answer is, "no"?

A: I said these documents show the days on which he was paid. That's what they show. So they show -- they show that he was paid on these days....It just kind of amazes me that some will now say they want more information, after the payroll records and the [attendance] point summaries have all been released to show that he met his requirements and to show that he fulfilled his duties.

Can you believe it? Reporters wanted definitive information stating that Bush had truly been at the Alabama base? That apparently was too much for the press secretary. And when one of the media hounds asked exactly what Bush had done while supposedly serving in Alabama, McClellan countered, "You're asking me to kind of break down hour-by-hour what he was doing during 1972 and 1973. What these documents show is that he was serving in the National Guard and he was paid for that service." No one was requesting an hour-by-hour itemization. But McClellan would only say that Bush "remembers serving during that period and performing his duties." Bush, it seems, has no recollection of what that service entailed. Instructing pilots? Filing papers? Hanging out at the officers' lounge? He won't say.

A reporter asked, "You can't even tell us what kind of drills or what-have-you?" And McClellan resorted to an old dodge: "We addressed all those questions back during the 2000 campaign fully." That was an untrue statement. In 2000, the Bush campaign left much of this unaddressed. Bush did not state then what he had done in Alabama. This reporter noted that most people can "detail" what they did when they worked. But McClellan kept fibbing: "And we did. During the 2000 campaign, we talked about this issue fully."

The Bush gang did not talk about the issues fully then--and it is not doing so now. The currently available records support conflicting accounts. Bush's unwillingness (or inability) to provide any specific recollections is certainly suspicious, as is his refusal to answer questions about his failure to take a flight physical. By releasing the pay sheet summaries and retirement records, Bush has not made good on his pledge to Russert. There likely are other records in his military files that could be of use in settling this dispute--medical records, perhaps. Are there disciplinary records? When Bob Fertik of Democrats.com filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2000 requesting portions of Bush's military records, he asked for pay stubs. He was turned down by the military, which cited Bush's privacy rights. If Bush and McClellan really want to address this issue "fully," Bush should waive his privacy rights and release all the papers that remain. He did promise to disclose "everything."

Despite McClellan's repeated assertion, the pay sheet summaries and retirement records are not enough. That's especially true when they are waved about by a defender who spins, trims, and ducks and who at key moments is AWOL from the truth.

UPDATE NO. 1

On February 11, the White House released a one-page record of a dental exam that Bush received at the Alabama Air National Guard base on January 6, 1973. This is the first documentary indication that Bush was ever present at this base. This document does strengthen Bush's case. But assuming it is legitimate--and I'm not suggesting it is not--it does not seal the deal. Bush has said he returned to Houston from Alabama after the November 1972 election. (He had been working in Alabama on the Senate campaign of a Republican friend of his family, who ended up losing the race.) It certainly is possible that he stayed in Alabama for several months after the election--though he was in Washington, DC, with his family during the Christmas holidays. Still, there are no records covering the time he returned to Houston and the May 2, 1973, annual review that noted he had not been seen at the base.

And as the White House released this document, it declared that it had no intention of opening Bush's entire Guard files. On Meet the Press, Bush had been asked if he would make his whole file available (as had Senator John McCain and retired General Wesley Clark). Bush replied, "Yeah. Absolutely." But now the White House position is less absolute.

Meanwhile, Bill Burkett, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Texas National Guard told various newspapers this week that in 1997 he was in a National Guard office and overheard Joseph Allbaugh, who was then chief of staff for Governor George W. Bush, tell an officer he needed to make sure there was nothing embarrassing in Bush's Guard file. Burkett recalled he later spotted items from Bush's file in the trash. Allbaugh and the White House denied these allegations.

Partial releases. Allegations of file-fixing. No explanations for remaining questions. The best way for Bush to reach a final resolution on this controversy would be to release everything in his file--that is, to keep his promise.

UPDATE NO. 2

At the daily press briefing on February 11, McClellan continued to trample the truth. When a reporter noted that Bush had agreed on Meet the Press to open up his entire military file, McClellan replied, "the specific question was about service, whether or not he had served in the military, if you go back to look at the context of the discussion." Translation: no friggin' way. But Bush had said he would "absolutely" release his full file. Call it, Promise Abandoned.

In another exchange, a reporter asked why the White House would not address questions regarding Bush's failure to take a flight physical in 1972. McClellan replied, "I think this was all addressed previously. I think that, again, this goes to show that some are not interested in the facts of whether or not he served; they're interested in trolling for trash and using this issue for political partisan gain."

Wrong again. The White House had not addressed this previously. And the explanation the Bush campaign offered in 2000 turned out to be phony. Moreover, why is seeking an answer to this question "trolling for trash"? The reporter pressed McClellan and asked "what was the answer previous to this?" Rather than provide that "answer," McClellan said, "I'm not going to engage in gutter politics." But he did not say why it would be "gutter politics" to restate what the Bush folks had said about this matter earlier. Still, he insisted "we went through this in 1994, I believe again in '98, 2000. Now some are trying to bring it up again in 2004." He just wouldn't repeat what had been said in those earlier instances.

At the press briefing the next day, McClellan once more was asked, "Why won't you talk about why he didn't show up for his physical, which is a question that still persists?" His initial response was predictable: "We answered that question four years ago." But then he added, "The reason--well, he was on--first of all, you're saying he didn't show up. He was on--he moved to Alabama for a civilian job and he was on non-flying status while in Alabama. There was no need for a flight exam."

But this was not what the Bush campaign had said in 2000. It had claimed that Bush did not take a flight physical because he was in Alabama and his personal physician was in Houston--even though personal physicians do not adminster flight physicals; Air Force doctors do. Moreover, Bush returned to Houston after November 1972, and he remained in the Guard until the end of July 1973. Why did he not take a flight physical then. Was it because he remained on non-flight status? If so, why? Perhaps his full records would resolve this mystery. But when it comes to releasing the complete file, McClellan has turned Bush's "absolutely" into an "absolutely not."

DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S NEW BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com<

W as in AWOL: Case Not Closed

[FOR TWO UPDATES ON BUSH'S BROKEN PROMISE AND MORE WHITE HOUSE SPINNING ON THE AWOL CONTROVERSY, SCROLL TO THE BOTTOM]

George W. Bush is lucky that Scott McClellan is not his lawyer and that the White House press briefing room is not a courtroom.

On February 10, the Bush White House tried to rid itself of the allegation that Bush ducked out of his Air National Guard Service from May 1972 to May 1973. Two days earlier on Meet the Press, Bush maintained, "I did report, otherwise I wouldn't have been honorably discharged." But he offered no details. He did not describe what drills he did; he did not mention anyone with whom he served during the time in question. When host Tim Russert asked if he would open up his "entire" file and release "everything to settle this," Bush said, "Yeah. Absolutely."

And two days later, McClellan was in the briefing room holding up new documents that he claimed proved Bush had "fulfilled his duties." The key material, which the White House had managed to obtain PDQ from the Air Reserve Personnel Center in Denver--were several pages of microfiche payment sheet summaries that apparently showed Bush was paid several times in the months of October and November 1972 and January and April 1973. McClellan also cited two retirement records that showed Bush had amassed attendance points for these days.

This new material did bolster Bush's defense. But it hardly resolved the issue. Nor did it address the most damning elements of the case against Bush. Most notable of these is the May 2, 1973, annual performance review--signed by two superior officers, who were friends of Bush--that noted, "Lt. Bush has not been observed at" his home base unit in Houston for the past year. Bush has said he spent about half of that period reporting to a Guard base in Alabama, while he was temporarily living there. The new records do not explain why the commander of that unit and his administrative officer say they never saw Bush. Nor do they explain why the Bush campaign in 2000 failed to keep its promise to produce the names of people who had served with Bush in Alabama. Nor do these records explain why Bush, who had been trained as fighter pilot, failed to take a flight physical during the year in question and was grounded. Nor do they back up the 2000 Bush campaign's explanation that Bush did not take a flight physical because he was living in Alabama and his personal doctor was in Houston. (Flight physicals are administered by military physicians, and there were flight physicians at the base in Alabama where Bush says he served.)

The records hailed by the White House only demonstrate that Bush received payments and credit for a modest amount of days. They do not show what he did and where he did it. Those sorts of records detailing Bush's service should exist, according to military experts. But that is not what the White House handed out. Is it possible Bush received payment and credit for days of service that did not happen? Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who served in the National Guard during the Vietnam War, recently wrote that he was routinely paid for Guard duty he never did. Given the other evidence, these pay records are not end-of-story proof.

But what makes the White House case particularly unconvincing is McClellan's performance at the press briefing. It was a remarkable exhibition of dissimulation that deserves to be studied by students of political spin. He avoided remaining questions. He kept insisting that these records meant there was nothing else to discuss. He denied reality and refused to acknowledge there was documentary evidence contradicting Bush's account. He was an automaton: these records showed that he served, these records showed that he served, these records showed that he served.

The first question was a tough one for McClellan. A reporter asked:

The records that you handed out today, and other records that exist, indicate that the President did not perform any Guard duty during the months of December 1972, February or March of 1973. I'm wondering if you can tell us where he was during that period. And also, how is it that he managed to not make the medical requirements to remain on active flight duty status?

The exchange that followed was not edifying.

A: These records verify that he met the requirements necessary to fulfill his duties. These records --

Q: That wasn't my question, Scott.

A: These payroll records --

Q: Scott, that wasn't my question, and you know it wasn't my question. Where was he in December of '72, February and March of '73? And why did he not fulfill the medical requirements to remain on active flight duty status?

A: These records -- these records I'm holding here clearly document the President fulfilling his duties in the National Guard. The president was proud of his service. The president --

Q: I asked a simple question; how about a simple answer?

A: John, if you'll let me address the question, I'm coming to your answer.

But McClellan never got there. He did not reveal where Bush had been during those months. And he said nothing about Bush's failure to take a flight physical.

Another reporter, citing the promise made by the Bush campaign in 2000, asked whether the White House had been able to find anyone who could verify Bush's service in Alabama. McClellan replied: "All the information that we have we shared with you in 2000, that was relevant to this issue....[T]here are some out there that were making outrageous, baseless accusations. It was a shame that they brought it up four years ago. It was a shame that they brought it up again this year. And I think that the facts are very clear from these documents. These documents -- the payroll records and the [attendance] point summaries verify that he was paid for serving and that he met his requirements." In other words, the Bush White House had found no one.

Then came this follow-up from a reporter: "I do think this is important. You know, it might strike some as odd that there isn't anyone who can stand up and say, I served with George W. Bush in Alabama....Particularly because there are people, his superiors who have stepped forward...who have said in the past several years that they have no recollection of him being there and serving. So isn't that odd that nobody -- you can't produce anyone to corroborate what these records purport to show?" McClellan answered, "We're talking about some 30 years ago." But there were 600 to 700 people who served at the Alabama base at that time. Surely, if the White House had to find someone who went to grade school with Bush 45 years ago--and class sizes were not that big back then--they could.

McClellan's most unbelievable statements came after a reporter asked him about the annual performance review that indicated Bush had not reported for duty at his home base in Houston for a year. Let's go to the videotape:

Q: The President's officer effectiveness report, filed by his commanders, Lieutenants Colonel Killean and Harris, both now deceased, for the period 01 May '72 to 30 April, '73, says he has not been observed at this unit, where he was supposed to show up and earning these points on these days....The president said he returned to Texas in November of '72. So some of these dates of service, which are in these [payment] records, ought to have been noted by his commanding officers, who, nevertheless, said, twice, he has not been observed here. Can you explain that?

A: I'm not sure about these specific documents. I'll be glad to take a look at them. But these [newly released] documents show the days on which he was paid for his service.....

Q: So he served, but his commanding officers didn't know it?

A: Again, I don't know the specific documents you're referring to. If you want to bring those to me, I'll be glad to take a look at them and get you the answers to your questions.

McClellan didn't know about this specific document? That would be like Martha Stewart's attorney saying he was not familiar with her stockbroker's assistant's contention that she had sold stock on inside information. This document--first brought to public attention in May 2000 by Walter Robinson of The Boston Globe--is at the core of the case against Bush. If McClellan does not know about it, Bush ought to fire him immediately (or name him head of the CIA).

Later in the press briefing, another reporter took a stab at forcing McClellan to deal with Exhibit A.

Q: After all of the things you repeated here, you cannot explain this contradiction, the fact that his payroll records indicate he was paid for a period of time for fulfilling service, and yet his commanding officers at that time wrote that he was not observed. Can you or can you not explain that contradiction?

A:....I said I would glad to go back and look at the document that he's referencing. I have not --

Q: You know the document he's referencing. Everybody does. His commanders --

A: No, I have not -- I have not seen the document he's referencing.

Q: -- are quoted repeatedly for years --

A: You're talking about quotes -- you're talking about quotes from individuals. And we said for years, going back four years ago, that the president recalls serving and performing his duties.

Q: I understand that, but his commanders do not recall it. And, in fact, they say, that he was not observed. So can you explain the contradiction, or can't you?

A: I've seen some different comments he's -- no, I've seen some different comments made over the recent time period.

Q: I haven't seen any different -- different comments...from his [Houston base] commanders, who said he was not observed. Can you explain the contradiction?

A: Look, I can't speak for those individuals. I can speak for the president of the United States. And I can speak --

Q: -- the documents --

A: And I can speak for the fact that the documents that -- as far as we know, all the documents that are available relevant to this issue demonstrate that the president fulfilled his duties. Are you suggesting these documents do not reflect that?

That's the whole issue. A critical document says Bush was gone for a year. It was signed by two superior officers who were also his buddies. As for the documents McClellan held in his hand, reporters asked him if the White House was maintaining that they proved Bush had actually reported for duty in Alabama.

Q: It's your position that these documents specifically show that he served in Alabama during the period 1972, when he was supposed to be there. Do they specifically show that?

A: No, I think if you look at the documents, what they show are the days on which he was paid, the payroll records. And we previously said that the president recalls serving both in Alabama and in Texas.

Q: I'm not interested in what he recalls. I'm interested in whether these documents specifically show that he was in Alabama and served on the days during the latter part of 1972 --

A: And I just answered that question.

Q: You have not answered that question. You --

A: No, I said -- no, I said, no, in response to your question, Keith.

Q: No, so the answer is, "no"?

A: I said these documents show the days on which he was paid. That's what they show. So they show -- they show that he was paid on these days....It just kind of amazes me that some will now say they want more information, after the payroll records and the [attendance] point summaries have all been released to show that he met his requirements and to show that he fulfilled his duties.

Can you believe it? Reporters wanted definitive information stating that Bush had truly been at the Alabama base? That apparently was too much for the press secretary. And when one of the media hounds asked exactly what Bush had done while supposedly serving in Alabama, McClellan countered, "You're asking me to kind of break down hour-by-hour what he was doing during 1972 and 1973. What these documents show is that he was serving in the National Guard and he was paid for that service." No one was requesting an hour-by-hour itemization. But McClellan would only say that Bush "remembers serving during that period and performing his duties." Bush, it seems, has no recollection of what that service entailed. Instructing pilots? Filing papers? Hanging out at the officers' lounge? He won't say.

A reporter asked, "You can't even tell us what kind of drills or what-have-you?" And McClellan resorted to an old dodge: "We addressed all those questions back during the 2000 campaign fully." That was an untrue statement. In 2000, the Bush campaign left much of this unaddressed. Bush did not state then what he had done in Alabama. This reporter noted that most people can "detail" what they did when they worked. But McClellan kept fibbing: "And we did. During the 2000 campaign, we talked about this issue fully."

The Bush gang did not talk about the issues fully then--and it is not doing so now. The currently available records support conflicting accounts. Bush's unwillingness (or inability) to provide any specific recollections is certainly suspicious, as is his refusal to answer questions about his failure to take a flight physical. By releasing the pay sheet summaries and retirement records, Bush has not made good on his pledge to Russert. There likely are other records in his military files that could be of use in settling this dispute--medical records, perhaps. Are there disciplinary records? When Bob Fertik of Democrats.com filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2000 requesting portions of Bush's military records, he asked for pay stubs. He was turned down by the military, which cited Bush's privacy rights. If Bush and McClellan really want to address this issue "fully," Bush should waive his privacy rights and release all the papers that remain. He did promise to disclose "everything."

Despite McClellan's repeated assertion, the pay sheet summaries and retirement records are not enough. That's especially true when they are waved about by a defender who spins, trims, and ducks and who at key moments is AWOL from the truth.

UPDATE NO. 1

On February 11, the White House released a one-page record of a dental exam that Bush received at the Alabama Air National Guard base on January 6, 1973. This is the first documentary indication that Bush was ever present at this base. This document does strengthen Bush's case. But assuming it is legitimate--and I'm not suggesting it is not--it does not seal the deal. Bush has said he returned to Houston from Alabama after the November 1972 election. (He had been working in Alabama on the Senate campaign of a Republican friend of his family, who ended up losing the race.) It certainly is possible that he stayed in Alabama for several months after the election--though he was in Washington, DC, with his family during the Christmas holidays. Still, there are no records covering the time he returned to Houston and the May 2, 1973, annual review that noted he had not been seen at the base.

And as the White House released this document, it declared that it had no intention of opening Bush's entire Guard files. On Meet the Press, Bush had been asked if he would make his whole file available (as had Senator John McCain and retired General Wesley Clark). Bush replied, "Yeah. Absolutely." But now the White House position is less absolute.

Meanwhile, Bill Burkett, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Texas National Guard told various newspapers this week that in 1997 he was in a National Guard office and overheard Joseph Allbaugh, who was then chief of staff for Governor George W. Bush, tell an officer he needed to make sure there was nothing embarrassing in Bush's Guard file. Burkett recalled he later spotted items from Bush's file in the trash. Allbaugh and the White House denied these allegations.

Partial releases. Allegations of file-fixing. No explanations for remaining questions. The best way for Bush to reach a final resolution on this controversy would be to release everything in his file--that is, to keep his promise.

UPDATE NO. 2

At the daily press briefing on February 11, McClellan continued to trample the truth. When a reporter noted that Bush had agreed on Meet the Press to open up his entire military file, McClellan replied, "the specific question was about service, whether or not he had served in the military, if you go back to look at the context of the discussion." Translation: no friggin' way. But Bush had said he would "absolutely" release his full file. Call it, Promise Abandoned.

In another exchange, a reporter asked why the White House would not address questions regarding Bush's failure to take a flight physical in 1972. McClellan replied, "I think this was all addressed previously. I think that, again, this goes to show that some are not interested in the facts of whether or not he served; they're interested in trolling for trash and using this issue for political partisan gain."

Wrong again. The White House had not addressed this previously. And the explanation the Bush campaign offered in 2000 turned out to be phony. Moreover, why is seeking an answer to this question "trolling for trash"? The reporter pressed McClellan and asked "what was the answer previous to this?" Rather than provide that "answer," McClellan said, "I'm not going to engage in gutter politics." But he did not say why it would be "gutter politics" to restate what the Bush folks had said about this matter earlier. Still, he insisted "we went through this in 1994, I believe again in '98, 2000. Now some are trying to bring it up again in 2004." He just wouldn't repeat what had been said in those earlier instances.

At the press briefing the next day, McClellan once more was asked, "Why won't you talk about why he didn't show up for his physical, which is a question that still persists?" His initial response was predictable: "We answered that question four years ago." But then he added, "The reason--well, he was on--first of all, you're saying he didn't show up. He was on--he moved to Alabama for a civilian job and he was on non-flying status while in Alabama. There was no need for a flight exam."

But this was not what the Bush campaign had said in 2000. It had claimed that Bush did not take a flight physical because he was in Alabama and his personal physician was in Houston--even though personal physicians do not adminster flight physicals; Air Force doctors do. Moreover, Bush returned to Houston after November 1972, and he remained in the Guard until the end of July 1973. Why did he not take a flight physical then. Was it because he remained on non-flight status? If so, why? Perhaps his full records would resolve this mystery. But when it comes to releasing the complete file, McClellan has turned Bush's "absolutely" into an "absolutely not."

DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S NEW BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.

Trying to Change the Channel

Congress is starting high-profile hearings today to debate the crisis in American media. The topic: Media concentration? No. Rather, indecency.

Spurred on by Janet and Justin's Super Bowl antics, Congress has decided to try to address the issue of television's "race to the bottom." Their answer? Increasing token fines on broadcasters that push the envelope with explicit content.

The problem with this approach, as Katrina vanden Heuvel argues in her new weblog, is that "for most conglomerates, even major fines won't dent their massive lobbying budgets. Besides, given the multi, mega-billion giveaway that Congress and the last several Administrations gave the broadcasters (free broadcast spectrum in 1996 worth $300 billion plus; cable channel space in 1992, worth tens of billions more), what Congress is doing must be seen by TV industry lobbyists as a minor nuisance at most. "

Fortunately, there are numerous citizen groups calling on Congress to focus on what's truly obscene: Big Media getting bigger. The Media Reform Network, co-founded by The Nation's John Nichols along with Robert McChesney and others, is at the forefront of the struggle.

Currently, the MRN is calling on people to urge their elected reps to co-sponsor House Joint Resolution 72, the resolution of disapproval that would roll back the new FCC rules. Click here to send a letter, and here to sign on to the MRN's free newsletter, a great place to keep up with new developments in the movement.

The Super Bowl half-time show is just the latest example of the corporate synergy that the Bush Administration and FCC Commissioner Michael Powell have done their best to accelerate. And Powell's "shock" at the spectacle is just a tactic to deflect attention from how his polices have contributed mightily to lewd and crude media. Members of Congress are focused on the media today. It's a good time to try to tell them what people really care about.

A Victory for Decency

"All eyes of the nation should be on Philadelphia Wednesday, but now they're going to be on Michael Powell's public scolding of Janet Jackson," lamented Jeff Chester, head of the non-profit Center for Digital Democracy.

Wednesday, February 11, is when opening arguments on the FCC's new media ownership rules are scheduled to be heard in a Philadelphia appeals court. That's the same day that the GOP Congress has called back-to-back hearings in the House and Senate on violence and indecency on the public airwaves. (At least one Democratic FCC commissioner, Jonathan Adelstein, planned to travel to Philadelphia for opening arguments in the appeal of the agency's controversial decision last June, but had to change his plans when Congress tapped him--and the other four FCC commisioners, including Michael Powell--to testify. )

We can expect Powell to rail against profanity and smut on TV, and repeat his refrain that Viacom/CBS/MTV's Super Bowl stunt with Janet and Justin must be punished. He and several Republicans are already pushing a bill to increase indecency fines tenfold. But for most conglomerates, even major fines won't dent their massive lobbying budgets. Besides, given the multi, mega-billion giveaway that Congress and the last several Administrations gave the broadcasters (free broadcast spectrum in 1996 worth $300 billion plus; cable channel space in 1992, worth tens of billions more), what Congress is doing must be seen by TV industry lobbyists as a minor nuisance at most.

As Andrew Schwartzman, head of the Media Access Project, put it, "I don't think the solution to indecency and bad taste is more fines. I think it's selecting broadcasters that are going to be more responsive to the needs of the local community."

By holding the hearings on the same day as opening arguments in Philadelphia, the GOP Congress and Bush Administration are cravenly trying to change the channel--deflecting attention from their own role in creating the TV networks' weapons of mass distraction.

This week, the important implications are in Philadelphia--not DC. That's where public advocates, media labor unions, and church groups square off against Viacom/CBS; News Corp/Fox; GE/NBC, and lawyers representing almost every newspaper in the US, all of whom will be arguing that the court should affirm and extend what Michael Powell and his GOP wrecking crew did last June.

For years, the media industry has had a sympathetic hearing in the DC Appeals Court. So, the networks and newspaper companies were shocked when the Philly Court--after winning the case in a lottery--took the arguments of the media reformers seriously. (The court suspended implementation of Powell's rules--putting on hold all the deals planned to begin after the FCC June 2 decision.)

It would be a shame if the grandstanding in DC this week overshadows what happens in a courtroom in Philadelphia. It is there that the future of our media landscape may be decided. Will we live with Citizen Kane on steroids? Or can we achieve a media that serves the public interests of citizens? Now, that would be a victory for decency.

'I Think I Scared Them'

Howard Dean's supporters think he has gotten a raw deal from the media. And their candidate does not disagree.

Even before the former frontrunner started to stumble at the polling places in primary and caucus states, Dean says he started taking hits from media insiders who he says feared handing the Democratic presidential nomination to an outsider.

"I think I scared them. I think it goes back to when Al Gore endorsed me, and AFSCME and the SEIU; people in the establishment began to think I could win," Dean says, recalling the heady days last fall when he accumulated endorsements from top Democrats and labor unions. "That scared the hell out of them because they knew I didn't owe anybody. I didn't owe them a dime. Eighty-nine percent of our money comes from small donors. That's certainly not true of anybody else running for president on either side."

The "them" Dean is referring to are the Washington-based political pundits, reporters and commentators who shape so much of the discussion of presidential politics on television and on the pages of America's elite newspapers. "I think the media is part of the established group in Washington. They have a little club there," says Dean. "If you don't go down to kiss the ring, they get upset by that. I don't play the game. I pretty much say what I think. That makes a lot of people uncomfortable."

Initially, Dean says, he felt he could take the hits. After all, media outlets that once dismissed him as the "asterisk" candidate from the small state of Vermont made him a national figure when they featured him on magazine covers and news shows.

But, after what he refers to as a "pep talk" given to backers after his defeat in the Iowa caucuses began airing around-the-clock on cable news programs as the "I Have a Scream" speech, Dean says he began to fully understand how events can be warped by the media. "ABC actually did a fairly sound retraction on that one," Dean says of a report by ABC News that showed the "scream" in Des Moines was dramatically amplified in television and cable reports. "But that's one network, and one report. Most of the networks failed to offer any perspective."

Dean does not suggest that he has run an error-free campaign. He admits to plenty of mistakes. But his complaint that he has not gotten fair coverage is echoed by a report from the Center for Media and Public Affairs. The center's study of 187 CBS, NBC and ABC evening news reports found that only 49 percent of all on-air evaluations of Dean in 2003 were positive. The other Democratic contenders collectively received 78 percent favorable coverage during the same period.

In the week after the Iowa caucuses, the center found that only 39 percent of the coverage of Dean on network evening news programs was positive; in contrast, 86 percent of the coverage of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards was positive, as was 71 percent of the coverage of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the new front runner. Even CNN's general manager now admits that the cable networks overplayed the "scream" – which was aired 633 times on national networks in the four days after Iowa voted on January 19.

Yet, even as he tries to resurrect his campaign with a make-or-break push toward Wisconsin's February 17 primary, Dean does not talk much about media coverage of his campaign. Why? "It's not central to the stump speech. If I were leading the polls by 20 percent, I could say anything I wanted about the media," he explains. "But what I've discovered is that, if you complain about the media, they write that you're whiney and complaining. So I don't complain about the media."

That does not mean, however, that Dean does not think about how he would handle media issues if elected. "I figure I'll win, and then I'll really complain about the media," he says.

What does Dean mean by that?

"I think democracy fails under a variety of conditions and one of the conditions occurs when people don't have the ability to get the kind of information they need to make up their mind. Ideologically, I don't care much for Fox News. But the truth is that, as long as there are countervailing points of view available on the spectrum, it doesn't matter," says Dean, who began speaking last year about the need to reduce the power of big media companies.

"Now, the last time I saw a statistic on this, I think that 90 percent of the American people got their news from a handful of corporations," he adds. "That's not very good for democracy, and that's not very good for America. If I become president of the United States, I'm going to appoint a whole lot different people to the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) so that we start to make the media more diffuse, more responsible. I'd also like public airwaves devoted to some public services – so that every single station serves the community where it is located."

Dean dismisses the notion that proposals to break the grip of media conglomerates are radical. "That's not radical at all," he says. "That's what we used to have. The right wingers have undone that over the last 15 or 20 years, and we need to go back to what we had to have a sound democracy."

Dean also dismisses the notion that it would be difficult to get the American people to go along with a challenge to big media. "I think the public would love what I was doing," he says of a presidential assault on media monopolies. "The public doesn't particularly like the media, which works in my favor."

Maybe He's Smarter Than We Knew?

"I don't think America can stand by and hope for the best from a madman."

George W. on "Meet the Press," Sunday, Feb. 8th

'Send Them a Message' Voting

Name the Democratic presidential candidates who scored unexpectedly strong showings in Democratic presidential caucuses over the weekend?

John Kerry? No, it is not exactly news that the frontrunner is winning primaries and caucuses. No doubt, Kerry's showings in Washington, Michigan and Maine were impressive, and he is likely to secure some even more impressive finishes Tuesday in the Virginia and Tennessee primaries -- proving in the period of four days that he can win in the west, the Midwest, the east and the south. But Kerry's finishes confirm what the polls have been predicting ever since he won a surprisingly strong victory in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses. He is the man to beat, and no one is beating him.

Howard Dean? No, he is not even exceeding the lowered expectations for his formerly frontrunning campaign. Dean continues to secure second-place finishes in northern states such as Washington, Michigan and Maine. But he is struggling to come in fourth in southern and border states. Even in his native New England, he has now lost both New Hampshire and Maine to Kerry. And the fact that he cannot do better in passionately anti-war states such as Washington and Maine begs the question: Where can he win?

John Edwards? No, he failed to move ahead of Dean in any of the northern states that voted over the weekend -- even though he had support from the United Steelworkers union and former House Whip David Bonior in Michigan. And if he and retired Gen. Wesley Clark both lose to Kerry in Virginia and Tennessee Tuesday, it is going to get harder for Edwards and Clark to spin themselves as serious competitors for the nomination.

But if all the candidates that the media covers fell within their expectations over the weekend, then who were the exceptional contenders? A pair of candidates who are seldom accused of being serious competitors for the nomination, but whose candidacies offer primary and caucus goers opportunities to send real messages: Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton.

Kucinich ran third in the Washington state and Maine caucuses, beating Edwards and Clark. In Maine, Kucinich was winning around 14 percent of the vote, and he could yet have enough support to secure a delegate or so when all the caucus votes are counted.

Kucinich backers in Maine were not, for the most part, being romantic. In interviews with the local media on caucus day, they indicated that they knew the Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair was unlikely to win the nomination. But they also indicated that they wanted to send a message by backing the candidate who had staked out the most clearly antiwar, anti-Patriot Act, and anti-free trade stances in this year's race. "Hopefully, he can have some influence on the final platform. (A strong performance) can add some credential to his positions," explained Dennis Rioux, who caucused for Kucinich in Biddeford, Maine. Rioux, who was enthusiastic about Kucinich's anti-war position and the candidate's support for single-payer health care, said he hoped Kucinich would have enough delegates to raise those issues at the Democratic National Convention in July.

Sharpton backers were sending a similar message in Michigan. Sharpton, who campaigned aggressively in Detroit, actually ran second in the city. Only Kerry did better than Sharpton, who won 30 percent of the vote in one Detroit-based Congressional district, and 35 percent in the other. "(Candidates need to) pay attention to the urban agenda," Sharpton backer Dorothy Redmond, of Detroit, told the Michigan Daily. "Although Sharpton won't make it, I want to show blacks do vote and have issues." Those sentiments won Sharpton seven delegates from Michigan, more than any of the candidates except Kerry and Dean.

"We can accumulate the delegates we need to go to the end of this campaign, to get 300 to 400 delegates," says Sharpton. That may be a stretch, although Sharpton does have the potential to secure a good number of delegates in the March 2 New York primary. But it is not extreme to suggest that, as the big-name candidates stumble and fall out of the race, there will still be a desire among primary and caucus voters to send a message about the issues the Democratic Party so frequently fails to address. And the showings for Sharpton in Michigan and Kucinich in Washington and Maine suggest that they could come to serve as the message carriers for those Democrats who want to make sure their party stands for something come November.