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Barack Obama's victory in the hard-fought Democratic primary for an open US Senate seat from Illinois has instantaneously made him a political star. CNN analysts were calling the civil rights lawyer-turned-legislator "the man to watch in Illinois" and "the country's hottest Senate candidate." The New York Times and The Washington Post are weighing in with glowing reports. US Senator Jon Corzine, the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is ecstatic about having a smart, articulate and politically-savvy candidate who looks to be well positioned to pick up the seat of retiring Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald. Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe was even more ecstatic about the prospect that Obama, the child of Kenyan and American parents, would give the party a fresh young African-American leader to feature at its national convention in Boston.
For backers of Howard Dean's failed presidential campaign, however, the Obama win offers something else: a bittersweet reminder of what might have been. There was a great deal about the Obama campaign that mirrored the most interesting and impressive aspects of the Dean candidacy. Obama made early and effective use of the internet and drew supporters together using Meet Ups. He built an enthusiastic network of supporters that included college students, suburban liberals and veteran progressive activists in Chicago. Like Dean, Obama was an early and outspoken critic of the Bush administration's scheming to invade Iraq, he criticized the Patriot Act and he promised to "act like a Democrat" if elected. While most of organized labor endorsed another, "safer" candidate, Obama secured the support of the Service Employees International Union, a growing union that frequently flexes its political muscles in Democratic primaries and that also backed Dean. U.S. Representatives Jesse Jackson Jr. and Jan Schakowsky, both Dean backers, campaigned hard for Obama.
So what went right for Obama, who on Tuesday won a landslide victory over a field of better-financed and at least initially better-known Democratic contenders? How did he fight his way from the back of the pack to the front of a multi-candidate field and then, unlike Dean, stay there through election day? While it is important to be remember that national and state campaigns are dramatically different, it is fair to say that Obama did three things that Dean didn't:
1.) Obama deliberately avoided peaking too soon. He started at the rear of the pack. As the candidate himself said, "I think it's fair to say that the conventional wisdom was we could not win. We didn't have enough money. We didn't have enough organization. There was no way that a skinny guy from the South Side (of Chicago) with a funny name like Barack Obama could win a statewide race." Obama and his media strategist, David Axelrod, intentionally kept expectations low. Where the Dean campaign spent a fortune in mid-2003 to win the media attention that would rocket him to frontrunner status, the Obama campaign kept its powder dry. "It was our plan to finish hard, when people were paying attention," explained Axelrod. "One of the great disciplines of the campaign was not to spend money early and waste those resources." Thus, while Obama was outspent 6-1 by one of his foes, millionaire Blair Hull, he was able to hold his own in the "air wars" at the close of the campaign."
2.) When the competition intensified, Obama kept his cool. Like U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, who won a 1992 Democratic primary after two better-known and better-financed opponents went wildly negative on one another, Obama presented himself as a calm, attractive alternative to foes whose flaws became increasingly evident at the frenzied finish of the campaign. Even as polls began to identify him as the frontrunner in late February, he campaigned as the nice-guy underdog and he kept on message. Unlike Dean, Obama gave the media few if any gaffes to highlight. In this sense, he was more like another of this year's Democratic presidential contenders, North Carolina Senator John Edwards. That's no coincidence. Obama's chief strategist, Axelrod, played a similar role with the Edwards campaign.
3.) To the very end, Obama focused on his base in Chicago's vote-rich African-American neighborhoods. Obama represents a neighborhood with a substantial African-American population in the state Senate, and he ran an unsuccessful but high-profile Democratic primary for a congressional seat in 2000. And he earned the active support of key political players in the African-American community, such as Jackson and U.S. Representative Danny Davis. Obama's other appeal was to white liberals, a point emphasized by commercials that featured testimonials from Schakowsky and the daughter of former U.S. Senator Paul Simon. Where the Dean campaign stretched itself thin trying to secure a big win early on, Obama's campaign remained focused on African-American and liberal wards where he could maximize his vote. He ended up winning as much as 90 percent of the vote in some Chicago precincts. Obama won close to 500,000 votes in Chicago's Cook County, beating his closest competitor by an almost 4-1 margin. Comparisons were made between Obama's strategy and that of the late Harold Washington, who was elected mayor of Chicago in 1983 at the head of a rainbow coalition of African-American and white liberal voters. While Danny Davis, a close ally of Washington, was cautious about the precise comparison, he did say that Obama "reenergized the base" and created "more energy than I've seen since Harold Washington."
Two other notes are worth making in aftermath of the Illinois voting:
* For Democrats, who are becoming cautiously optimistic about their prospects in the fight for control of the Senate, the Obama win is very good news. That's because he came through the primary reasonably unscathed, and because the excitement about his candidacy will make fund-raising easier in a tight year. Obama will face a tough race against millionaire Republican Jack Ryan, who will campaign as a "compassionate conservative." But if Obama continues to run smart, he's got a good chance of picking up a currently Republican Senate seat in a state that is likely to trend Democratic this fall. If Democrats gain the Illinois seat and the Colorado seat that Republican Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell is vacating, they will at least be in the fight, although they are still up against the difficult reality that five southern seats currently held by Democrats are open. The interesting new development is that polls in Pennsylvania show Republican Senator Arlen Specter is facing a tougher-than-expected challenge from conservative U.S. Representative Pat Toomey in that state's April 27 Republican primary. If Specter loses in April, the Democratic candidate, U.S. Representative Joe Hoeffel, could well win in November.
* No one paid much attention to the Illinois presidential primary, which John Kerry won with more than 72 percent of the vote and 141 delegates -- giving him more than enough delegate support to attain the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in July. The only candidate who came close to competing with Kerry in Illinois was a candidate who had withdrawn from the race: John Edwards, who took just under 11 percent of the vote and appears to have secured two delegates. Even with a maximized African-American turnout, Al Sharpton ran miserably. In the first Democratic presidential primary after Sharpton endorsed John Kerry but said he would continue his campaign in order to help shape the direction of the party, the New Yorker ran behind Kerry, Edwards and two other contenders who have folded their campaigns: former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun, who withdrew from the race two months ago, and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who withdrew last month. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, the only other candidate who says he is still in the running, finished even further behind.
History provides plenty of examples of Democratic challengers who have remained in the running for the party's presidential nomination even after it is beyond their grasp. They have done so to raise issues, to influence the direction of the party and to position themselves for future political endeavors. In some cases -- Ted Kennedy in 1980, Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, and Jerry Brown in 1992 -- the challengers have won primaries, secured delegates and achieved what, at the least, could be described as moral victories. Sharpton and Kucinich are falling far short of the mark set by those previous contenders. When a challenger who is actually campaigning runs behind candidates who have left the race, it is hard to argue that he is having any influence on the frontrunner -- let alone on the direction of the party.
"We are moving in the direction of undermining the First Amendment," said US Representative Ron Paul, the maverick Texan who was the only Republican member of the House to oppose the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004. Paul, one of the least likely defenders of shock jocks like Howard Stern and Bubba the Love Sponge, is, of course, correct. The measure, which passed the House by a vote of 391-22 last week, was written with the intent of preventing broadcast personalities from engaging in certain forms of potentially offensive speech by threatening them -- and the stations on which they appear -- with financial ruin.
Under the legislation that passed the House, the fine for an on-air personality who violates the ill-defined decency standards applied by the Federal Communications Commission would rise from $11,000 to $500,000. The fine against the owner of the station on which the violation was heard and seen would rise from $27,500 to $500,000.
Before the vote, officials of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists urged the measure's defeat, with union president John Connolly and executive director Greg Hessinger arguing in a letter to House members that, "Such legislation should be rejected on the grounds that it represents an unconstitutional threat to free speech and would have an unnecessary chilling effect on artistic freedom."
Representative Gary Ackerman, D-New York, was blunter. If implemented, the congressman said, the law would not have "a chilling effect." "It would have a freezing effect," he explained.
Marvin Johnson, an American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel, said "the very notion (of the legislation) runs counter to everything prescribed in the First Amendment. The vagueness of the language will lead broadcasters and individuals to stifle their remarks and remain silent rather than run the risk of facing an FCC fine. Not only will our First Amendment rights suffer, but so will the national dialogue. In the end, we are left with no clear understanding of just what is ‘indecent' and worse yet, it seems we will only find out when huge fines are levied on broadcasters or speakers."
So how did so flawed a piece of legislation win such overwhelming bipartisan support in the House? The answer has a lot to do with those flaws. Even members who knew the proposal was bad policy figured it was safe to support it because the bill's prospects in the Senate seemed slim; and because, if it ever did become law, the measure would face a certain court challenge.
The push for the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004, which ramped up after singer Janet Jackson's breast was exposed during the Super Bowl show, represents the worst sort of election-year showboating. It is directed only at over-the-air television and radio stations. No restrictions are placed on the nation's booming cable and satellite TV and satellite radio networks. And it does not begin to address one of the primary factors in the explosive growth of programming that Americans find offensive -- the concentration of control of radio stations in fewer and fewer hands after most limits on ownership were eliminated with the passage by Congress of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. As corporations such as Clear Channel have bought up local radio stations, they have swept out hometown programming that tended to reflect regional differences -- or that, at the least, responded to local complaints -- and imposed programming and personalities with no connection to the community.
"The fact is, higher fines are going to do nothing," argued Representative Dave Obey, D-Wisconsin. "If you want to do something to give communities the ability to stop this nonsense, you will take away from the FCC the ability to put broadcast power in the hands of a few corporations."
Representative Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, one of the most outspoken advocates for media reform in the Congress, explained that the House legislation dealt "only with the symptoms of the problem and not with the underlying cause" -- concentrated ownership.
Yet, when the votes were counted, even Obey and Hinchey voted for the measure. Only 22 members, including Paul and Ackerman, had the courage to actually vote "no," with most of them voicing free speech concerns. Another 20 members voted "present" or simply did not vote at all. Among those voting "no" were many of the House's most progressive members, including California Democrats Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee, Zoe Lofgren and Pete Stark, as well as New Yorkers Jerry Nadler and Jose Serrano. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, also voted "no," as did Georgia Democrat John Lewis, the veteran civil rights activist. Michigan Democrat John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, was among the members who did not vote.
While the House bill passed overwhelmingly, it still must clear some high hurdles before it become the law of the land. There appears to be less interest in the issue in the Senate than there was in the House. And, if the Senate does act, it will be on a significantly different piece of legislation. While the Senate bill would also raise fines to $500,000, it includes an amendment that addresses the media concentration concerns raised by Obey and Hinchey.
The Senate bill, if passed, would put on hold the media ownership rule changes endorsed by the FCC in a 3-2 vote last June. Under the provision, which was proposed by North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan and approved by the Senate Commerce Committee, the General Accounting Office would conduct a year-long study of the relationship between media consolidation and the growth in the number of indecency complaints.
The FCC's moves to ease ownership limits would then be reassessed on the basis of the GAO study.
Because Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, is under pressure from the Bush administration to preserve the ownership rule changes -- which are popular with large media companies and campaign contributors associated with them -- it is unlikely that a vote will be scheduled anytime soon on legislation that includes the Dorgan amendment. Threats to freedom of speech may not be of much more concern to the Senate than they were to House, but threats to powerful corporations and campaign contributors are another matter altogether.
(John Nichols is the co-author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media [Seven Stories]. McChesney and Nichols are co-founders of Free Press, the media reform network. The Free Press website is at www.mediareform.net)
It should not come as a surprise to anyone who has watched American politics over the past several years that George W. Bush has begun his formal reelection campaigning by exploiting the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, for political advantage. This is, after all, the president whose aides schemed on the day of the attacks to use them to get Congress to grant Bush "Fast Track" authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement. And it is the president whose political czar, Karl Rove, conspired with Republican Senate candidates in 2002 to employ 9/11 images as tools to attack the patriotism of Democrats, such as Georgia Senator Max Cleland, a decorated and disabled Vietnam veteran.
Everyone expected the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign to begin its television advertising campaign by branding Bush as the 9/11 candidate.
The only surprise is that the Bush political team would, after more than two years of preparation, perform the task so gracelessly.
Was there no one in the close confines of the Bush campaign with enough awareness of the sensitivities that remain -- especially among the friends, families and colleagues of the dead -- to suggest that it might be inappropriate to produce campaign advertisements featuring images of the dead being removed from the wreckage of the World Trade Center?
By any measure, the much-heralded opening of the Bush-Cheney Version 2.0 campaign has been a disaster for the president.
The point of the sort of gauzy, flag-flapping political advertisements that the Bush campaign has begun airing was to raise the president's approval ratings after a Democratic primary season in which Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and his rivals landed some serious blows to Bush's reelection prospects. Bush aides had planned to use the advertisements and a busy schedule of appearances by the president and Vice President Dick Cheney to regain dominance of the media coverage of the 2004 campaign.
Instead, the "story" of the week in which Bush was supposed to be reintroducing himself to the voters focused on the anger of people like Kristen Breitweiser over the Bush ads. "After 3,000 people were murdered on his watch, it seems that that takes an awful lot of audacity," declared Breitweiser. "Honestly, it's in poor taste."
What a nightmare for the Bush campaign crew when New York City firefighter Tommy Fee was asked by a reporter about the ads and responded, "It's as sick as people who stole things out of the place. The image of firefighters at Ground Zero should not be used for this stuff, for politics." And Fee was not alone. Tom Ryan, a 20-year veteran with the city's Fire Department, reacted to the use of footage from a fireman's funeral in one of the ads bysaying, "As a firefighter who spent months at Ground Zero, it's deeply offensive to see the Bush campaign use these images to capitalize on the greatest American tragedy of our time."
Suddenly, family members, friends and colleagues of 9/11 victims were all over television, radio and the newspapers echoing the sentiments of Monica Gabrielle, whose husband died in the collapse of the Twin Towers. "It's a slap in the face of the murders of 3,000 people," Gabrielle said of the use of images of the removal of the 9/11 dead for political purposes. "It's unconscionable."
By Friday, just a day after the commercials began airing in battleground states, the September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows group was circulating the names of a long list of family members and firefighters who were objecting to the ads.Spouses, parents and siblings of 9/11 victims were holding press conferences in New York to call for the ads to be taken down. And the critics weren't just talking about the ads; they were making very public note of the president's failure to cooperate with the 9/11 commission that is charged with investigating how and why the attacks occurred.
The Bush campaign had tested the ads with focus groups. They knew the use of the 9/11 images was risky; but they very much wanted to begin the process of branding 9/11 as a campaign issue and they thought they could easily dismiss any criticisms as partisan bickering. What the Bush camp failed to anticipate was the speed and the intensity of the negative response to the ads.
As the firestorm built, team Bush went into immediate damage-control mode. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was dispatched to defend the ads as a reflection of America's "shared experience" during Bush's term. But Giuliani refused to say whether he would exploit 9/11 images in a similar way if he was running for office, so his did not prove to be a particularly effective defense.
The Bush campaign has been counting on Karen Hughes, one of the president's closest and most camera-friendly aides, to provide the first line of spin. She did a round of television talk shows to defend the commercials as tasteful and necessary. But, as usual, Hughes pushed the Bush line harder than was appropriate, or useful.
"I can understand why some Democrats not might want the American people to remember the great leadership and strength the president and First Lady Laura Bush brought to our country in the aftermath of (the attacks)," she grumped on "The Early Show" on CBS.
Does Hughes seriously mean to suggest that Americans have forgotten the details of September 11, 2001, or of the president's actions in the weeks and months that followed? That's a stretch. Even Hughes admitted, in the same interview, that, "September 11 was not just a distant tragedy." And what aspect of the president's "leadership" is highlighted by incorporating images of the dead being removed from Ground Zero into a campaign commercial?
More importantly, why would Hughes, an expert in the choice of words, choose to dismiss the widows, relatives and comrades of the dead as "some Democrats"? The answer speaks volumes about the thinking within the closed confines of the president's inner circle. The Bush team's view is that anyone who criticizes the president, even someone who lost a family member or colleague in the collapse of the twin towers, is automatically an anti-Bush partisan.
That's a serious miscalculation by the Bush campaign. And a surprising one. Hughes and others are allowing intense loyalty to their boss to cloud their judgement. Does this mean that the Bush team, which is made up of some of the ablest political minds that money can buy, is destined to blow this reelection campaign -- just as the able team of Bush's father blew the previous president's 1992 reelection campaign? Not necessarily; it is still a long way to Election Day and this campaign will take many unexpected turns over the next eight months. But it does suggest that the people who dressed the president up in flight-suit drag to declare the Iraq War mission accomplished last May are still off their game. In a week when they had planned to claim control of the political discourse, they lost it. Badly.
Had John Edwards won the Ohio and Georgia primaries on Tuesday, it would have been difficult to prevent him from staking his claim on the Democratic nomination for vice president. But Edwards lost Ohio by 18 percentage points and Georgia by six. And the North Carolina senator's candidacy was rejected at least as enthusiastically by voters in the eight other states that held Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses on SuperTuesday.
So John Kerry scored two victories Tuesday. With his 9-state sweep (and a completely credible second-place show in Vermont against that state's sentimental favorite, Howard Dean) he went from frontrunner to presumptive nominee. And, by vanquishing Edwards so thoroughly, he freed himself to pick the running mate he prefers.
This does not mean that Edwards is out of the running for veep. He survived longer as a serious contender than any of the other prominent challengers to the Kerry juggernaut. He got high marks as a personable, tireless and almost always on-message campaigner. He put together the best stump speech of any of the candidates -- a emotional call for closing the economic gap between what hedescribed as "the two Americas." And he successfully raised an issue -- the damage done to American workers and communities by free-trade agreements -- that Democrats will have to address if they want to be competitive this fall in critical states such as Ohio and Missouri.
But Edwards got stuck in second-place and never secured the range of primary and caucus victories he would have needed to position himself as an inevitable running mate. Like former Arizona Congressman Mo Udall, who ran second to Jimmy Carter in Democratic primary after Democratic primary in 1976, Edwards comes out of the competition with a reputation as an appealing campaigner, a genuine contributor to the debate and, unfortunately, a loser.
With Edwards' star shining a bit less brightly, his name will be just one of the many considered by Kerry as the veep sweepstakes heats up. The usual suspects will be trotted out. It will be suggested that Kerry needs to attach himself to a conservative Democratic Leadership Council-insider like Indiana Senator Evan Bayh. But Bayh cast a controversial May, 2001, vote for the Bush administration's initial plan to cut taxes for the wealthy, making him a difficult choice if Kerry wants to run, as he should, as a critic of the Bush administration's failed economic policies.
There is already a good deal of talk about Florida Senator Bob Graham, who clearly has more to recommend him than Bayh. As a former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, for instance, he is prepared to critique the Bush administration's misguided approach to the war on terrorism. But Graham proved to be ill-prepared for primetime when he mounted his own listless campaign for this year's Democratic presidential nomination. The best argument for Graham is that he might help Kerry win Florida, allowing Democrats to avenge the scandalous 2000 miscount of that state's votes. The best argument against Graham is that, if polls are to be believed, he might not help Kerry win that state's critical electoral votes.
Graham won't be the only vice presidential prospect whose prime appeal is the prospect that he or she might be able to "deliver" a state. But, if Kerry is as smart as he has proven to be so far in this campaign, he won't play the old game of picking a running mate who might--emphasis on "might"--help him carry a particular battleground state. Rather, he will follow the lead of Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and pick a vice presidential prospect who helps to energize the party's base voters nationally, and who adds ideas and energy to a ticket that will be needing more of both those commodities.
Among the people Kerry might consider are:
* New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the single most effective battler against corporate abuses in either political party. Spitzer has been a watchdog on Wall Street and a fearless advocate for consumers. He's also got a great track record as a defender of women's rights. Spitzer's smart, he's quick on his feet and he already has achieved a stature that extends well beyond New York's borders.
* Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, the sole opponent in the Senate to the Patriot Act and the most prominent Democratic advocate for campaign finance reform. Feingold's got a far better record than Kerry on issues of concern to working Americans and farmers, meaning that he could be a particularly effective advocate for the ticket in the swing states of the Great Lakes and the upper Midwest.
* Texas Representative Lloyd Doggett, one of the savviest and mosteffective members of the current Congress. He's a former state Supreme Court Justice with a great legal mind. And wouldn't it be interesting to hear a Texas-accented voice explaining the folly of the war with Iraq, the Patriot Act and other Bush initiatives?
* Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, who would bring to the ticket varied experience and a base in the southwest -- an emerging swing region. Born in New York, Napolitano moved to Arizona after law school, helped represent Anita Hill, served as U.S. Attorney for Arizona and was elected that state'sattorney general in 1998. Four years later, she beat a top Republican to win the governorship.
* California Representative Diane Watson, a veteran Los Angeles educator who served on the Los Angeles Board of Education, as a state legislator, and as the U.S. ambassador to Micronesia before her election to Congress in 2001. A fierce critic of the Bush administration on education issues, she is, as well, one of the most consistent advocates in Congress for media reform. And, as a passionate and highly-energetic African-American woman, she could do a tremendous job of maximizing turnout among the party's base voters.
* Illinois Representative Jan Schakowsky, the truest heir to Paul Wellstone in the current Congress. An able grassroots organizer and a skilled communicator, she is one of the most energetic members of the current Congress. And she is arguably its most aggressive progressive. Schakowsky is often the first member of the House to voice criticism of the latest Bush administration misstep -- she had a statement out on Haiti before the administration had even started spinning. As a vice presidential candidate, she would drive Karl Rove and his crew crazy by outmaneuvering them at every turn. And it is almost too delicious to imagine her debating Dick Cheney.
In 1966, barely two years after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was passed by the House and Senate, a handful of intrepid candidates challenged pro–Vietnam War Democratic incumbents in party primaries. The most prominent of their number, Ramparts magazine editor Robert Scheer, took on California US Representative Jeffrey Cohelan, an otherwise liberal Democrat who refused to criticize Lyndon Johnson’s warmaking in southeast Asia.
Scheer won 45 percent of the vote in that year’s Democratic primary and went on to a distinguished career in journalism. But he also did something else. His campaign planted the seeds for a 1970 challenge to Cohelan by Ron Dellums, who dispatched the incumbent and went on to serve almost three decades in the House. Dellums was not the only antiwar challenger to defeat a Democratic incumbent that year. In New York, Bella Abzug upset seven-term incumbent Leonard Farbstein. In Massachusetts, a young Vietnam veteran named John Kerry and Father Robert Drinan, the dean of the Boston College Law School, both prepared campaigns against hawkish Democrat Phil Philbin, the second-ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. Kerry stepped back and Drinan went on to beat the twenty-six-year incumbent in a September, 1970, Democratic primary.
The war in Iraq is different from the war in Vietnam. But as in the late 1960s and 1970s, antiwar candidates have begun to prepare primary challenges to Democratic incumbents who supported the October 2002 “blank check” resolution authorizing George Bush to order a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. The most serious so far is that of Ro Khanna, a 27-year-old San Francisco attorney with an economics degree from the University of Chicago and a law degree from Yale, who is taking on twelve-term incumbent Tom Lantos in a heavily Democratic Bay Area district.
Lantos has a reasonably solid liberal record on domestic issues, and he generally wins high ratings from the AFL-CIO and groups such as Americans for Democratic Action. But it’s a different story on foreign-policy matters. Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, was one of the leading advocates in the House for the use-of-force resolution in 2002. He served as a pro-resolution floor manager and said it was his “privilege” to deliver eighty-one Democratic votes for the president. Last year, Lantos was a champion of the Bush Administration’s proposal to allocate another $87 billion to fund US military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has, as well, been one of the House’s most consistent Democratic backers of the Patriot Act.
Khanna launched his challenge to Lantos in December, saying, “In March, Democrats in San Mateo County and San Francisco will have the opportunity to reject Bush’s flawed Iraq policy and his misguided war on our liberties, and to send someone to Congress who shares their own values.”
The question, then, was whether Khanna, a political newcomer, could mount a viable enough campaign against an entrenched incumbent to make the choice he promised a realistic option. Though Lantos remains the favorite going into Tuesday’s primary vote, Khanna has made a race of it. He has raised a respectable amount of money—close to $250,000 by mid-February—and attracted enough volunteers to run an energetic campaign that feels in the best sense like that of Howard Dean, whose presidential run Khanna supported.
The challenger was endorsed early on by the California Democratic Council, a coalition of grassroots Democratic groups across the state that had in the past backed Lantos. More recently, he has picked up strong support from two of San Francisco’s most prominent progressives, Supervisor Tom Ammiano, a Democrat, and Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez, a Green who last year came within a few percentage points of being elected that city’s mayor. Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig is another Khanna enthusiast. “I live in the 12th Congressional District in California. We’re a pretty sensible (you might call us liberal) bunch,” Lessig, the author of The Future of Ideas, wrote in a recent entry on his popular weblog. “Over 80 percent oppose the war. Almost 70 percent oppose the Patriot Act. Yet our Congressman—a wonderful and amazing figure, Tom Lantos—doesn’t vote the way his district thinks. He has supported the war. He has supported the Patriot Act. I haven’t done this before, and I’m not going to do this much again, but this gap between who we are and how we are represented has led me to help Congressman Lantos’ opponent—Ro Khanna. Ro’s a bright, young, committed Democrat, committed to representing the views of his district.”
Khanna also has the backing of the region’s influential alternative weekly, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which said in an editorial, “We’ve been saying for years that Rep. Tom Lantos needs a good challenge, and a bright, Yale University-educated 27-year-old lawyer named Ro Khanna is finally giving him one. Khanna—who would be the first person of Indian descent elected to Congress since the 1950s—is campaigning primarily on the issues of the Iraq war and the PATRIOT Act. Lantos supported both; polls show a strong majority of the voters in this western San Francisco and northern peninsula district oppose both.”
The high level of support for Khanna has got the political establishment scared. The challenger has started taking hits for being a corporate lawyer and for fueling his campaign with money from Indian-American entrepreneurs who are not always the most progressive players. For the most part, the attacks are standard political cheap shots. But they could take a toll on a candidate who is relatively new to the district and, despite an energetic campaign, not nearly so well-known as the incumbent.
That said, Khanna has posed enough of a threat to force Lantos to spend a substantial chunk of his $1.5 million campaign fund. The incumbent has, as well, begun to talk about problems with the Patriot Act.
After taking a good deal of criticism from local media for failing to accept Khanna’s debate challenges, Lantos faced off Friday against Khanna and a third candidate, Maad Abu-Ghazalah. During the debate, Khanna said, “We have a chance to do something absolutely extraordinary in this election: to hold a congressman responsible based on his voting record. Mr. Lantos has had a distinguished career in public service, but his votes for the war and the Patriot Act don’t represent the will of this district.”
The extent to which Khanna’s campaign actually ends up holding Lantos responsible will be decided by the voters on Tuesday. Win or lose, however, Bay Guardian executive editor Tim Redmond says, “Khanna has done what you would hope a challenger would do. He has forced the incumbent to come home, to answer questions about his votes on issues like the war and the Patriot Act. This is exactly what primaries are for.”
Thursday night's wide-ranging and refreshingly substantive debate between the four remaining contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination did little to slow the momentum of frontrunner John Kerry as the likely-to-be-definitional Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses approach. Kerry outmaneuvered his chief opponent on a key issue, and showed some skills that will likely serve him well in a November contest with Republican George W. Bush. But the Massachusetts senator made at least one statement – regarding presidential war making -- that ought to concern anyone who still thinks Congress should have a say on matters of war and peace.
Here are some highlights and lowlights from what is likely to be one of the last debates of the primary season:
KERRY TRUMPED JOHN EDWARDS ON THE TRADE ISSUE. The North Carolina senator has made criticism of free trade policies a central theme of his campaign to upset Kerry in "Super Tuesday" primaries and caucuses in states such as California, New York, Ohio, Georgia and Minnesota. And Edwards has plenty of ammunition for the fight, as Kerry's record on trade issues is difficult to distinguish from that of George W. Bush. But, when the trade issue came up during Thursday's Los Angeles Times/CNN debate, Kerry was ready for Edwards. And he hit the North Carolina senator where it hurt.
After Edwards suggested that the frontrunner was changing his pro-free trade tune with recent statements about the need to insert protections for workers and the environment into trade agreements, Kerry suggested to voters that Edwards is, himself, something of a newcomer to the fair-trade movement.
Asked if he was "shocked" by Edwards' focus on the trade issue, Kerry said, "Well, I am surprised, because in his major speech on the economy in Georgetown this past June, John never even mentioned trade. And the fact is that, just the other day in New York, in The New York Times, he is quoted as saying to The New York Times that he thought NAFTA was important for our prosperity. Now he's claiming that he was against it and these other agreements."
Then, Kerry added, "I have said clearly for a number of years now, we have to have labor and environment standards in all of our trade agreements. That is exactly the same position as John Edwards."
From an issue standpoint, that was as close as Kerry and Edwards got to clashing. For the most part, they simply avoided taking shots at one another. That was good for Kerry, and devastating for Edwards, because polls show the North Carolinian continues to trail in all the big states that will vote March 2. Edwards is drawing large crowds, and he has momentum in Georgia and upstate New York. He has won some important newspaper endorsements in California, from the Sacramento Bee and the L.A. Weekly. But, in debate after debate, he has refused to take the bait when questioners have offered him opportunities to draw clear distinctions between himself and Kerry. On Thursday night, when he really needed to make those distinctions, Edwards instead sounded like he was more concerned about getting his name on Kerry's list of prospective running mates.
Edwards was not helped by the fact that, while he kept the gloves on, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich was far more aggressive than in the past.
Distancing himself from both Edwards and Kerry on the trade issue, Kucinich delivered the most useful critique of the World Trade Organization yet heard in a presidential debate. "Throughout this campaign I have visited city after city where I've seen grass growing in parking lots where they used to make steel, they used to make cars, they used to make ships. And let me tell you something: NAFTA and the WTO must be canceled. Let me tell you why. The WTO, for example, it doesn't permit any alterations. When we, as members of Congress, sought from the administration a Section 201 procedure to stop the dumping of steel into our markets so we could stop our American steel jobs from being crushed, the World Trade Organization ruled against the United States and said we had no right to do that. Now, the World Trade Organization, as long as we belong to it, will not let us protect the jobs. This is the reason why we have outsourcing going on right now. We can't tax it. We can't put tariffs on it. And that's why I say, in order to protect jobs in this country and to be able to create a enforceable structure for trade, we need to get out of NAFTA, get out of the WTO, stop the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, stop the Central American Free Trade Agreement."
On the trade issue, which Edwards has sought to make his own, the winners Thursday night were Kerry, on style, and Kucinich, on content.
KERRY SOUNDED SCARY ON THE SUBJECT OF MILITARY ADVENTURISM: After explaining that, "No. I do not regret my vote" for the resolution that authorized President Bush to use force in Iraq, Kerry said, "Let me make it very clear: We did not give the president any authority that the president of the United States didn't have. Did we ratify what he was doing? Yes. But Clinton went to Haiti without the Congress. Clinton went to Kosovo without the Congress. And the fact is, the president was determined to go, evidently. But we changed the dynamics by getting him to agree to go to the United Nations and to make a set of promises to the nation."
Apart from the question of whether the Congress actually "changed the dynamics" of Bush's march toward war, Kerry again appeared to embrace the view that presidents can go to war without Congressional approval. The comments Thursday night echoed stratements Kerry made in the debate before Wisconsin's February 17 primary.
Amazingly, no one, not even Kucinich or the Rev. Al Sharpton, let alone the media questioners, challenged Kerry to explain his view regarding the advice and consent that the Constitution says Congress is required to provide before presidents start wars. During the 1990s, a number of members of Congress, most notably U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, challenged the Clinton administration's decisions to intervene in the Balkans and other parts of the world without clear Congressional approval. "There seems to be an informal understanding that, despite the fact that the Constitution says the Congress must declare wars, and despite the fact that the War Powers Act is good law, the Congress is simply going to ignore its duties," Feingold complained at the time. "There has been a willing surrender of Congressional authority to an aggrandizing White House. It suits both their purposes. The Administration does not want to endure tough questioning about what it is doing around the world, and the Congress does not seem to want to take responsibility for deciding whether the country should be engaged in wars all over the planet."
Kerry stood with Clinton and against those who sought to assert the role of Congress in decisions about going to war. It should come as little surprise that now, as he seeks the presidency, he remains enthusiastic about extending the power of the executive. But shouldn't he at least have been asked to explain whether he thinks Feingold and others are wrong to assert the right and responsibility of Congress to provide advice and consent before the U.S. goes to war.
It is notable that, in 1970, when Kerry first ran for Congress, he told a reporter, "I'm an internationalist. I'd like to see our troops dispersed through the world only at the directive of the United Nations." That sounded suitably anti-war, but Massachusetts anti-war activists wisely decided that year to back a candidate with a deeper understanding of the Constitution and of the role of Congress, Father Robert Drinan, the dean of the Boston College Law School. Drinan won the seat and, citing Section 1, Article 8, of the Constitution, he promptly wrote a resolution to impeach then-President Nixon for his illegal bombing of Cambodia. The impeachment resolution won the support of twelve members of the House Judiciary Committee.
Boston attorney John Bonifaz, who is 2003 filed suit on behalf of a group of soldiers and members of Congress to challenging the Bush administration's authority to go to war, says that, in the aftermath of the Iraq war debate, it is important for this year's Democratic National Convention to adopt a platform plank that affirms the party's support for Constitutional controls on war making. "The policy of the party should be to oppose further erosion of the war powers clause of the Constitution," says Bonifaz, the author of Warrior King: The Case for Impeaching George W. Bush (Nation Books). "The party should say, 'Never again should a president be allowed to go to war as George Bush did.'"
On the basis of what he had to say Thursday night, it would be interesting to see whether John Kerry would support or oppose such a plank.
SOCIALISM VERSUS CAPITALISM: Toward the end of Thursday night's debate, Kucinich was explaining how a single-payer national health care system "would provide all coverage for everyone, all medically necessary procedures, plus vision care, dental care, mental health care." Moderator Larry King exclaimed, "In other words, socialism?"
Kucinich shot back, "Wait a minute. You know what? What we have now, Larry, what we have now, what we have now, Larry, is predatory capitalism which makes of the American people a cash crop for the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical companies."
Over the sound of thunderous applause from the studio audience, King replied, "Well, said."
Democratic frontrunner John Kerry coasted on Not-So-Super Tuesday, winning three more states as Idaho, Utah and Hawaii quietly picked delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Kerry had no trouble dispatching John Edwards, the North Carolina senator who is generally portrayed as the last serious threat to the Massachusetts senator's frontrunner status. Kerry beat Edwards by 36 points in Hawaii, 32 points in Idaho and 25 points in Utah.
In fact, the candidate who came closest to Kerry wasn't even Edwards.
The candidate who gave the Democratic frontrunner the best run for his money on Tuesday was Dennis Kucinich, who won a respectable 27.5 percent of the vote in Hawaii to Kerry's 49 percent. While no one outside the Kucinich campaign is suggesting that the Ohio congressman's strong showing in Hawaii will put him on the road to the nomination -- or even to more second place finishes in the foreseeable future -- this was the best showing of the campaign so far for Kucinich, who has frequently finished with less than five percent of the vote in this year's primaries and caucuses. And it comes at a particularly useful time for the candidate, who has been struggling to gain attention going into the March 2 "Super Tuesday" contests in delegate-rich states such as California, New York, Ohio and Minnesota. Kucinich, who says he is in the Democratic contest until the convention in July, may have an easier time making the case for his continued inclusion in Democratic debates now that he has secured a second-place finish and won delegates.
Kucinich, the Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair who had collected no delegates in primaries or caucuses prior to Tuesday, appears to have won seven delegates from Hawaii, while Kerry will likely get 13. According to Hawaii Democratic Party chair Alex Santiago, Kucinich won the island on Maui, where the Ohio congressman campaigned Sunday night during the only pre-caucus campaign swing through the state by one of this year's contenders. Among Kucinich's Maui backers was singer Willie Nelson, who owns a home on the island and performed a concert for the congressman there.
Kucinich's late surge in the state was of sufficient concern to Kerry backers that, according to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, the frontrunner's campaign organized a last-minute phone bank to get its backers to the caucuses, which attracted three times the turnout seen in 2000. That Kerry was held below 50 percent in Hawaii by anyone was a surprise, as the Massachusetts senator had the support of most of the state's Democratic Party establishment, including U.S. Senators Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka and U.S. Representative Ed Case.
The fourth member of Hawaii's congressional delegation, U.S. Representative Neil Abercrombie, was an early supporter of Howard Dean's presidential bid and continued to urge Democrats to vote for Dean in hopes of winning delegates who would promote a progressive agenda at the party convention in Boston. But Dean only won nine percent of the caucus votes, falling below the 15 percent threshold needed to gain delegates.
While Kerry and Edwards skipped Hawaii to concentrate on "Super Tuesday" contests in 10 states that will select 1,151 delegates March 2, Kucinich gambled that the long flight to Hawaii might be worth the effort. The congressman, whose best previous showings were third place finishes in Washington state and Maine, told Hawaii Democrats that they could send an anti-war message. "It's no surprise the other candidates haven't come to Hawaii, because they would have to answer why they voted for the war and why they voted for the Patriot Act," Kucinich argued at campaign stops, adding that, "The people of Hawaii have the opportunity to make a statement."
Kucinich's backers, most of them peace activists, drove the anti-war message home. Ephrosine Daniggelis, who campaigned for Kucinich on the University of Hawaii campus, told local reporters, "We have been working day and night; he is the only candidate working for peace." On caucus day, the grassroots Hawaii for Kucinich campaign messaged supporters that, "The caucus is a time for Democrats to give voice to our true beliefs and honestly debate which direction we want for our country and our party. Once the primaries are over, we will all support the party's nominee against Bush. But please do not silence your independent voice before it is necessary. If you oppose the war, do not vote for a pro-war Democrat in the caucus. If you support trimming military spending, support universal healthcare, free college tuition, fair trade, etc., please vote your conscience. While the eyes of the world are upon us, let's send a message that Hawai‘i is a special place and a very progressive state."
They succeeded in sending that message. Kucinich's solid second-place finish in Hawaii was one of the strongest showings in any primary or caucus for a candidate stressing an anti-war message -- including Howard Dean who, it should be noted, went at the task with considerably more more money, official support and media attention.
The best-case scenario for Ralph Nader's fourth presidential campaign -- a 1992 write-in effort in the New Hampshire primary, Green Party runs in 1996 and 2000, and the independent candidacy he announced on Sunday -- is to pull a Norman Thomas. In the Great Depression election of 1932, Democrats worried that Thomas, the perennial Socialist Party candidate, would draw off votes in key states and help reelect Republican President Herbert Hoover. When the ballots were counted, however, Democrat Franklin Roosevelt defeated Hoover in all but six states and was swept into the White House. At the same time, Thomas won close to 900,000 votes nationwide, and in many state his backers provided a cushion of votes for Democrats who swept local, state and congressional races. Thomas was invited to the White House, treated with respect on Capitol Hill and credited with providing the inspiration for important elements of Roosevelt's New Deal.
The worst-case scenario for Nader's 2004 campaign is the James Birney circumstance. Birney, a prominent attorney who served as secretary of the American Anti-Slavery Society, sought the presidency in 1840 and again in 1844 as the candidate of the abolitionist Liberty Party. Birney's second run for the presidency secured only 62,103 votes, out of 2.7 million cast nationwide. But Birney took away enough votes in key states such as New York from Whig Henry Clay, a more cautious critic of the expansion of slavery, to tip the election to Democrat James K. Polk, who campaigned on a promise to annex Texas as a slave state. Polk quickly did just that, and then ordered the invasion of Mexico. Until his death in 1857, Birney, the passionate abolitionist, was blamed for giving pro-slavery forces an upper hand at a critical stage in American politics.
Somewhere between those best- and worst-case scenarios lies the likely result for Nader this year. It is far less dramatic. Indeed, the most likely scenario for Nader in 2004 is that he will not matter much.
Running as an independent, Nader will not be able to capture the ballots lines nor the considerable enthusiasm of the Green Party's volunteer infrastructure, which played a critical role in securing him ballot status in 43 states and the District of Columbia in 2000. And running in a year when beating George W. Bush has emerged as the central issue for millions of progressives, Nader will also have to make this race without the assistance of long-time friends and backers such as Ronnie Dugger, Michael Moore and Jim Hightower. As a result, the best bet is that Nader's name will be on fewer state ballots than in 2000; he might not even secure the roughly two dozen ballot lines he had in 1996. If this turns out to be the case, Nader will have a much harder time arguing for his inclusion in the debates. And, come November, he will be much more likely to end up as an asterisk.
Of course, Nader sees things differently. Running as an independent reformer, he says, he will have greater appeal to the disenchanted of all parties. Currently, he's suggesting that disappointed supporters of Howard Dean, turned off by the somnambulant, centrist candidacy of John Kerry, might exit the Democratic column and search Nader's name out on the margins of state ballot that are reserved for independent candidates.
But there's a lot of wishful thinking in that calculus. Dean was never really the pox-on-all-their-houses reformer that he tried to make himself in a last-ditch attempt to distinguish his waning candidacy from those of John Kerry and John Edwards. He came to prominence in 2003 as the "Beat Bush" candidate who referenced the disputed Bush-v-Gore result of 2000 in his stump speeches, condemned the president for lying about weapons of mass destruction, accused Dick Cheney's Halliburton of war profiteering and delivered blistering attacks on John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act.
If Kerry is the nominee, the Massachusetts senator and his backers admit that they are going to have to work to attract and inspire true-believing "Deaniacs." But, for the most part, the risk is that Deaniacs will disengage, not that they will align with Nader.
The 2004 contest is shaping up as a classic test of a contentious incumbent. Voters will likely approach the ballot box in November with far more clarity than was evidenced in 2000, recognizing that this year's election gives them a chance to embrace or reject another four years of George Bush, Dick Cheney and their administration.
For Nader to intrude into that choice in a meaningful way, it is necessary to imagine that substantial numbers of voters will go to the polls absolutely determined to remove the president from office -- grumbling all the way about the occupation of Iraq, war profiteering, assaults on civil liberties and tax breaks for the rich -- and then vote for Nader rather than a Democrat who could actually beat Bush. That's not a very likely prospect; and if it ever became one, Democrats would be particularly well positioned to counter it. Even as Nader objects, Democrats can and wlll argue that a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush, and they will have many more buyers for that line than in 2000.
This said, Democrats such as party chair Terry McAuliffe -- who says, "We can't afford to have Ralph Nader in this race" -- would be wise to calm down a bit with regards to Nader. It is true that, if a portion of Nader voters in New Hampshire and Florida had voted for Gore, the Democrat would have won those states -- no matter what schemes were hatched by Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his minions. But it is also true that, if a portion of Pat Buchanan's Reform Party voters in Wisconsin, Oregon, Iowa and New Mexico had cast their ballots for Bush, the Republican would have beaten Gore in those states. And savvy Democrats, such as former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, have always recognized that Nader voters helped US Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, and US Representative Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, win tight races in 2000. Cantwell's victory put Democrats in position to seize control of the Senate in 2001, after Vermont's Jim Jeffords left the GOP fold.
So, rather than waste too much time on the 2000 blame game, those who seek to beat Bush in 2004 ought to focus on some bottom-line fundamentals regarding Nader's latest candidacy:
IT HAS GOTTEN HARDER FOR NADER TO ARGUE THAT THERE ARE NO DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE TWO MAJOR PARTIES: On the night before Nader announced his candidacy, Al Gore appeared at an Idaho Democratic Party event where he presented a detailed denunciation of Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq, the Patriot Act and the Bush administration's energy, environmental and economic policies. Gore remains an imperfect player. But his words and deeds over the past several years have done a great deal to undermine Nader's basic premise that it did really matter who won the 2000 election -- and, by extension, who will win the 2004 election.
NADER WILL BE MARGINALIZED NOT BY CRITICISM OF HIS STRATEGIES BUT BY THE THEFT OF HIS ISSUES: In the fall of 2000, Gore backers spent millions of dollars and immense amounts of time and energy seeking to demonize Nader. They came off as desperate and anti-democratic, and in some instances actually reinforced support for Nader. Worst of all, their sense of urgency was undermined by their own candidate. Apart from a handful of populist moments, Gore ran a tepid campaign in which he failed to adequately distinguish himself from the then "compassionate conservative" George W. Bush on core issues -- remember the second debate, when the Democratic and Republican candidates agreed to agree on question after question. Those agreements reinforced Nader's message. More importantly, Gore's failure to pick up Nader's themes limited the Democrat's ability to compete in several key states. Had Gore addressed concerns about free trade, the decline in manufacturing, and farm policies that favored corporate agribusiness, he might well have won Ohio, Missouri and West Virginia -- state's that voted for Bill Clinton but went narrowly for Bush. Gore's biggest mistake in 2000 was his failure to understand Nader's appeal. Both Kerry, the Democratic frontrunner at this point, and John Edwards, his most prominent challenger for the nomination, are stumbling over one another to present themselves as economic populists. That's a signal that they will do a better job than Gore did of competing for the support not just of potential Nader backers but of the far broader pool of voters (and potential voters) who need to hear a populist message on issues such as trade.
NADER MAY NOT EVEN BE THE MOST SIGNIFICANT INDEPENDENT OR THIRD-PARTY CONTENDER IN 2004: Those in the Bush White House and its echo chambers on right-wing talk radio and the Fox television network, who have been delighting in the prospect of a Nader run, may not be laughing for long. Judge Roy Moore, the Alabama jurist whose fight to display the Ten Commandments on state property drew national attention last year, is being courted by the right-wing Constitution Party as a potential presidential candidate. (The Constitution Party was on the ballot in 41 states in 2000, and retains a solid network of activist supporters nationwide.) With growing numbers of core conservatives angered by Bush's policies on immigration, federal spending and individual liberties, a Moore candidacy could develop into a serious problem for the president. More than 20 percent of the voters in January's New Hampshire Republican primary cast ballots for someone other than Bush; more than 10 percent of Oklahoma Republican primary voters did the same. Come November, Moore could pose a greater threat to Republican prospects than Nader will to the Democrats.
NADER IS EXTREMELY UNLIKELY TO LEAVE THIS RACE ANYTIME SOON: From the moment Nader said he was exploring a 2004 bid, it was obvious he was going to run. In addition to rejecting appeals from former supporters to join a broad "Beat Bush" movement, Nader dismissed offers of platforms and vehicles that would have allowed him to be a major player in the 2004 race without being a candidate -- just as he rejected the Green Party line. He is determined to have his say and, as his "Meet the Press" announcement appearance illustrated, he will have plenty of opportunities to do so. He believes he has something to add to the debate, and he knows he has a right to try. Additionally, he has come to enjoy campaigning. Energy devoted to trying to get him out of the competition is wasted.
Franklin Roosevelt and his supporters came to a similar conclusion with regards to Norman Thomas in 1932. So they treated him with respect during the fall campaign, while grabbing the best elements of the Socialist platform away from Thomas. In the end, Roosevelt won, while Thomas could say he contributed significantly to the process. Nader, who has always held Thomas in high regard, will cling to the hope that the Roosevelt-Thomas scenario will repeat itself -- unlikely as that may be. He can anticipate no better result for himself this year. And the alternatives are far less appealing -- for Nader, and for America.
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."
THE SHARPTON FACTOR: The Edwards strategy for focusing on upstate New York is rooted in the theory that Al Sharpton will win a lot of votes in New York City. Sharpton has not mounted a particularly serious national campaign, but he has still secured some respectable finishes in urban areas where he has concentrated his time and energy. He ran a strong second behind Howard Dean in the District of Columbia's non-binding primary, and finished second behind Kerry in Detroit and Wilmington, Delaware -- winning Democratic National Convention delegates in both cities. Sharpton is exceptionally well known in New York City, where he has run for the U.S. Senate and mayor, securing solid vote totals in each contest. The evidence from around the country is that Kerry runs strong among African-American voters in northern urban areas. But if Sharpton holds Kerry's total down in New York City, Edwards aides think there is an outside chance that their man could finish first on the basis of a credible third-place finish in the city and a strong upstate vote. But Sharpton's role in the race has grown increasingly controversial. The Village Voice, which does not circulate much in Detroit or Wilmington, but is a serious factor in New York, has exposed the fact that Sharpton has been taking campaign cues from a nefarious Republican operative. In a piece titled, "Sleeping with the GOP," the Voice's Wayne Barrett writes, "Roger Stone, the longtime Republican dirty-tricks operative who led the mob that shut down the Miami-Dade County recount and helped make George W. Bush president in 2000, is financing, staffing, and orchestrating the presidential campaign of Reverend Al Sharpton." This story deserves the attention the Voice has given it, particularly because Sharpton has played on anger over the Florida recount fight to pump up his prospects. If Sharpton becomes a player in a competitive New York primary, as is possible, he should be pressed to address the issue of his ties to Stone -- at least as aggressively as Sharpton pressed Howard Dean on the former Vermont governor's minority hiring record in a critical exchange prior to the Iowa caucuses.
THE DEAN FACTOR: Howard Dean had a lot of supporters in the March 2 primary and caucus states. To a greater extent than the other candidades, Dean developed a 50-state strategy that saw him courting key officials and pouring money into grassroots organization is states that he and his aides fully expected his campaign would reach. As a result, even as his campaign stumbled badly after Iowa, he was able to keep winning delegates -- 24 in Michigan, 29 in Washington, 11 in Maine, 13 in Wisconsin on Tuesday. Dean ended his campaign on Wednesday, but that does not mean that he will cease to be a factor. If Dean does nothing, his supporters could actually keep campaigning and win some delegates -- just as backers of Paul Tsongas kept adding to his delegate totals after he quit campaigning in 1992. Some Dean backers have indicated a desire to carry on, and they could be a factor in New York, where the campaign filed full slates of delegate contenders in every congressional district. There is a great deal of speculation about the prospect that Dean might back Edwards. The former governor made it clear before the Wisconsin primary that he preferred Edwards to Kerry, telling CBS News, "I think that Sen. Kerry has an enormous advantage. 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." Edwards says that he has had friendly conversations with Dean in recent days, but there is no guarantee that Dean will choose to endorse. Former Dean aides explain that, if he goes with Edwards and then the North Carolinian quits on March 2, Dean could further marginalize himself. And, since Dean is serious about turning what was his campaign into some kind of force within the Democratic party, he will want clear evidence that Edwards is a long-term contender before he puts his name on the line. Note also that many people who are -- or have been -- close to Dean also have ties to U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy, who will continue to pull with all of his considerable might for a Kerry endorsement.
THE LABOR FACTOR: The AFL-CIO has endorsed Kerry. Labor has taken some hits on the campaign trail this year, but the race is now moving to states, such as Ohio and New York, where the union movement retains a great deal of strength. But labor is not completely united behind Kerry. There's a good deal of grumbling about the fact that Edwards is running hard on a labor issue -- opposition to free-trade pacts -- that has never been one of Kerry's strong points. (And there are still some union activists who note that Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, who remains in the contest, is a far more passionate advocate for fair trade than either Edwards or Kerry.) In New York State, Edwards will continue to have the support of UNITE, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. UNITE has 90,000 members in New York state, and the union's political director, Chris Chafe, says, "We're absolutely, 1,000 percent behind John Edwards. It is unlikely that he will do an event before March 2 where UNITE is not there to back him. We will be organizing upstate, downstate, wherever he needs us." Kerry's AFL-CIO endorsement will help him, but Edwards will be able to point to UNITE's backing and claim a good measure of labor legitimacy, especially in New York, where the union has a long history of political activism.
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."