“We’re in a war of ideas!” So declared Bill Barry, chairman of the Nashua, New Hampshire, Democrats, when he enthusiastically introduced Senator John Edwards at a campaign rally as the fellow who most deserved to win the primary in two days.

Barry was wrong.

There is no war of ideas occurring in the New Hampshire primary. There is barely a skirmish. The four top contenders–Senator John Kerry, former Governor Howard Dean, retired General Wesley Clark, and Edwards–each bemoan the influence of special interests in Washington (particularly its impact upon the Medicare prescription drug legislation), call for universal health care coverage, praise the potential of renewable and sustainable energy, promise to reverse George W. Bush’s environmental policies, support abortion rights, and vow to de-unilateralize foreign policy. There are policy disagreements. Dean wants to repeal all of Bush’s tax cuts; Kerry and Edwards want to dump only those that benefit wealthy taxpayers. Dean reminds his supporters that he opposed handing Bush the authority to invade Iraq while Kerry and Edwards voted to grant Bush that power. Yet on the question of what to do now in Iraq, the four candidates agree on the need to internationalize the occupation and try to coax other nations to contribute more troops and money. Representative Dennis Kucinich has tried to provoke a debate on two key matters by claiming he alone has a plan to replace U.S. troops in Iraq with United Nations forces within 90 days–though the U.N. has yet to indicate it is willing to do that–and by calling for universal, single-payer, not-for-profit health care. But given his in-the-basement standing in the polls, Kucinich has not created any back-and-forth on these topics.

This is a campaign of impressions and identities. The goal: find the right knight to vanquish the evil king. In on-the-stump performance, Dean and Edwards have been far better campaigners than Kerry and Clark. But that might not be enough for them to trip up Kerry the frontrunner.

Of the major contenders, Edwards has the best delivery and the best thematic approach. With passion and sincerity, he critiques the existence of “two Americas”–one for the well-to-do families that have access to quality health care, benefit from the existing tax code, and send their children to good schools; one for everyone else. Under the rubric of turning the “two Americas” into one, Edwards, the son of a mill worker, assails Washington lobbyists, empathizes with middle-class families squeezed by economic pressures, vows to restore America’s image abroad, and advocates policies that can return hope to stressed-out, low- and middle-income families. And he has the healthiest glow of all the candidates–he practically shines–and the best gestures, which come from his days as a trial lawyer. This pitch neatly weaves in his own personal up-from-the-working-class history. He has only been doing his “two Americas” routine since early January, and it may well be responsible for his second-place finish in Iowa.

Edwards has put together an attractive package. Is it flying off the shelf? The election will tell. His events appear to have the most uncommitted voters in attendance. That may signal movement in his direction. Or it might merely mean that the undecideds already have enough information on Dean, Kerry, and Clark and are giving Edwards a last look before rendering a final judgment.

Dean also has improved his offering to the voters. He has tried to counter the Scream Heard Around the World with one-liners (“I am so excited to be here, I could just scream”). And he highlights his command of policy. At a campaign event emphasizing women’s issues, Dean spoke authoritatively on Title IX (he opposes efforts to cut this funding for athletic programs for schoolgirls), early child development (he described a program he initiated in Vermont to help at-risk children at birth), and stem cells research (he noted his support for full federal funding). He blasted the Bush administration’s proposal to increase the work obligations for women on welfare (“We call it the Leave Every Child Unsupervised At Home Bill”), and he called for boosting the minimum wage, observing that such a move would disproportionately assist women. He noted that Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed, which chronicles the travails of low-income workers, ought to be “required reading” for every presidential candidate.

At this meeting, Dean came across as a smart, sure-footed, if a bit wonkish, liberal, but one who turned policy into programs in Vermont. And he continues to excite his core voters with his talk of reviving idealism and using people power to “take back the country” from special interests. He points to his early opposition to the Iraq war as proof he has the courage of his convictions, but he does not dwell on his war stance.

On Sunday, the Dean campaign maintained that its tracking polls showed him within a few points of Kerry, even though the Boston Globe had Kerry up by 23 points. At Dean rallies and events, his fans appear to be unbowed, undaunted, and still revved up–far more so than the voters who attend campaign events for other candidates. There are two basic questions about Dean’s prospects. First, how big is his core? Is it 18 percent, 23 percent? More? Less? Second, if it is not big enough to propel him into first place or a close second, does Dean have any reach beyond these die-hard Deaniacs? He seems to be the candidate about whom Democratic voters have the strongest feelings–for or against. That may limit his ability to attract voters who are not already on his side.

Kerry may well be benefiting from an opposite dynamic. He does not excite as Dean does (or seduce as effectively as Edwards). But he presents a more conventional–and perhaps–more comfortable choice for New Hampshire Democrats. Unlike Dean, Kerry faces no questions about his ability to handle national security matters. Unlike Edwards, Kerry faces no questions about his overall experience in government. In fact, his years of experience are written into his sad-dog face. Maybe it is due to these reasons that Kerry has wider–though not deeper–support than Dean and Edwards.

It is not because of his performance on the campaign trail. When it comes to being a candidate, Kerry cannot do better than a B-plus. It’s as if there is a Kerry wall. He says all the right things for a Democrat–but without any magic or music. He slams HMOs, insurance companies, Big Energy firms, pharmaceutical manufacturers. He can deliver dramatic lines, such as, “I know something about aircraft carriers for real.” Still, he does not connect as much as a frontrunner should. Is it because his speechifying skills have never been honed? At a gathering of Democratic officials, activists, and fundraisers at Nashua on Saturday night, Kerry criticized Bush for doing little on jobs and health care, and he declared, “It’s not only not mission accomplished; it’s mission not even legitimately attempted.” He certainly could have punched this point more effectively. And when Fox News’ Chris Wallace, during a televised interview, asked Kerry, who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, about his position on gay marriage, Kerry repeatedly said, “I’m against marriage.” Wallace had to remind Kerry to say gay marriage.

These examples don’t adequately describe Kerry’s limitations. He may well be a thoughtful, intelligent person–and a war hero/jock. At a charity hockey event in Manchester, Kerry played on a team against former Boston Bruins all-stars, and acquitted himself quite well. (Two goals, no hat trick.) And his campaign has been handing out thousands of copies of a 1998 issue of American Windsurfer magazine, which features Kerry on the cover and includes dramatic photos of him in a wet-suit and skipping over the waves. But he still needs a mojo transplant. At a rally with Senator Ted Kennedy at Nashua High School on Sunday, Kerry raised his voice and assailed the Medicare prescription drug bill as a $139 billion sop to the drug companies. He whacked Bush for weakening clean air and clean water legislation. He assailed Washington lobbyists. He said he would have renewable and alternative fuels provide 20 percent of the nation’s energy by 2020. And he observed that Bush has overseen the “most arrogant, inept, reckless, and ideological foreign policy” in American history. But he did not ignite the crowd. The audience was supportive–but not as jazzed as it could have (or should have) been. Here was Kerry’s chance to wow them completely. He just cannot do it. [UPDATE: On Monday evening, in his second-to-last campaign rally, Kerry, appearing in the gym on Pinkerton Academy in Derry, kicked out an A-minus performance. He was loose and energetic, he looked happy, he effectively engaged with questioners in the crowd.]

Nevertheless, Kerry is at the head of the pack. At the start of the 2004 campaign, political observers handicapped Kerry as the frontrunner because he was something of a default candidate: a war hero with positions in sync with most Democrats, a grownup, and a good fundraiser. That defaultness did not serve him well in the early stretch, when he lost the passion primary and the money primary to Dean. But it may be partly responsible for his resurgence in Iowa and New Hampshire. He is not a bold pick; he is a safe pick. Is it possible that voters craving an anti-Bush champion are responding to the idea of John Kerry more than the actual John Kerry? If so, how far can this relationship go?

Clark, like Kerry, has had a tough time making good on his potential. He essentially had New Hampshire to himself for a week–who counts Senator Joseph Lieberman?–and there are no signs he was able to exploit that opportunity. He entered the race late in September and–no surprise–he has been performing like a candidate who only has four months of experience. At that gathering of leading state Democrats, Clark delivered a speech that failed to rouse the audience. Too much of it was devoted to explaining why he now is a Democrat. His party credentials have been challenged by the other candidates. After all, he voted for Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. But it is too far into the game for Clark to be defending himself on this front. And he did so with little eloquence. Arguing that the Democratic Party, not the GOP, is the party of family values, Clark remarked, “family values are what it takes to have a family.” He also got worked up and exclaimed, “We’ve got to take out that president.” He can speak effectively on matters of national security, but he has not yet figured out a larger sales pitch.

Clark has had trouble dealing with the inevitable bumps, such as when ABC News’ Peter Jennings asked him to disavow filmmaker Michael Moore, who while endorsing Clark called Bush a military deserter. (Jennings described this as a reckless charge, but Bush appears to have ducked out of his National Guard service for a year, and he has never adequately explained all the missing time.) In response to Jennings–and subsequent interviewers–Clark noted Moore had the right to have any opinion he wanted (apparently about anything). That sounded more like a dodge than a defense.

What’s driving the contest in New Hampshire is not issues. That is no shocker. The policy differences are not pronounced, and elections are usually more about the seekers than their ideas. One idea is paramount now: find the guy who can dethrone Bush. Kerry may end up the choice in New Hampshire because his perceived liabilities are less tangible–or less worrisome–than those of Dean and Edwards. Politics, after all, is a relativist endeavor. And fortunately for Kerry, in this race the campaign performances of the candidates might be a small factor. On Tuesday, the contest will likely turn not on what voters feel about the candidates but on what they think they should feel about them.

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