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.