Nothing changes. The results of Mini-Tuesday have not altered the shape of the race. John Kerry won in Missouri, Delaware, Arizona, New Mexico, and North Dakota. John Edwards placed first in his birth state of South Carolina. Wesley Clark nabbed first by several hundred votes in Oklahoma. Howard Dean did not do better than third in any race; he finished fifth (behind Al Sharpton) in South Carolina. Dennis Kucinich, once more, was stuck in asterik-land, but managed to climb to 5 points in New Mexico. So Kerry remains the guy to topple. Edwards and Clark can claim they are winners, too, and proudly proceed. Dean lowered expectations–and met them. Before voters hit the polls in the February 3 states, he said he was not spending any money on television ads in these contests and was instead looking toward upcoming matches in Michigan, Washington and Wisconsin. He still is. But every step Kerry takes that is not a stumble is good news for his campaign. He maintained the overall trendlines and was the only candidate to collect delegates in every state. With three other contenders still in the hunt, the non-Kerry vote remains split–which will help Kerry’s efforts to stay ahead in the delegate count. Oh, yes, Joe Lieberman pulled out of the race before all the votes were counted. But that doesn’t matter.
Does Kerry have legs? You talk to longtime Kerry aides and friends and they all say the same: Kerry is a great closer, he comes from behind, he shows his campaign skills when the race is tight, he’s a fighter when he has to be. Okay, that might explain his surge of recent weeks which led to five-out-of-seven wins on Mini-Tuesday. But what does that mean about his future prospects? He’s no longer a comeback kid. He’s the pinata at the front of the parade. Can he sustain a leader-of-the-pack campaign? And not just in the next few weeks, but over the course of the next nine months? Before Kerry can resort to his I’m-a-whiz-of-a-closer routine next November, he is going to have to pitch a lot of innings as a starter and as mid-game reliever.
Can Kerry get better–and look better? During a victory speech in Washington state, Kerry was articulate, firm, and strong. He assailed HMOs, drug companies, and polluters, blasted Bush for weakening America at home and abroad, and energetically portrayed himself as a fighter. He delivered his stock lines with more conviction and more punch than he had previously. But–let’s be superficial–he didn’t look great. “He looks like Dracula,” my wife said. I was thinking Herman Munster. Maybe he was tired. But Kerry has trouble smiling. At ease, he has a dour expression. He does not come across as a happy warrior. He has a Bob Dole problem ( the pre-Leno, pre-Viagra Dole), though hardly as much as Dole himself had when he was the GOP nominee in 1996. Moreover, he does look as if he thinks too much. Is America ready for that? By continuing to improve his performance as candidate, can Kerry somehow invigorate his natural demeanor?
Will John Edwards go negative? Edwards has thrived as Mr. Nice. He hasn’t said a bad word about the other guys. Now he’s trying to convince folks it’s a two-man race–and he’s the other man (not Dean, not Clark). In mano-a-mano contests, candidates usually feel compelled to compare themselves to the other contestant, and that means pointing out unflattering aspects of the opponent (or, as the pro-Bush forces did in 2000 concerning John McCain, making stuff up). On election night, Edwards, speaking about Kerry, said, “there are real differences in our own backgrounds and our own policies.” That sounded as if he is trying to figure out how to exploit those differences. There is a stylistic difference between the campaign populism each has adopted. Kerry tells voters, I want to fight for you. Edwards says, I care about you and believe in you. Do voters want a soldier or a social worker?
Will Edwards get the Botox treatment? As soon as Kerry started winning, Republicans and rightwingers began pummeling him. Ed Gillespie, the head of the Republican Party (and former Enron lobbyist), blasted Kerry for being soft on defense and national security issues, selectively citing a handful of the thousands of votes Kerry has cast in his 19 years as a senator. Rightwing partisans started spreading the word that Kerry was a Botoxer and posting before-and-after photos that supposedly proves this. This move was laughable, but their aim was serious: raise questions about Kerry’s authenticity. (Fox News’ Brit Hume told viewers, though, that he has seen Kerry in the green room without makeup and that the frown lines are there.) This is just the start. Now, no one is going to take on Edwards on the Botox front. The guy uses reading glasses as a prop to appear more mature. But what attacks await him? Will the right bother? Can he be characterized as a greedy ambulance-chaser who is single-handedly responsible for runaway lawsuits? In recent days, The Washington Post and The New York Times have run stories on his years as a successful trial lawyer. Though the reporters found a handful of detractors, the pieces mostly depicted him as a Grishamesque hero and as an attorney who carefully chose his cases and treated his clients fairly. And since he’s only been in the Senate five years, the GOP oppo team will have less of a record to mine.
Is Howard a Dean bipolar? No, I am not talking about his temperament or stability. The issue is his approach to campaigning. One moment he says his Democratic rivals are all “fine people” who would have his support should he not win the nomination; the next he is calling John Kerry a “Republican” who has taken oodles of money from special interests. (By special interests, Dean means lobbyists–while Dean’s own campaign chief is a former telecom lobbyist.) Dean has warned Democrats not to nominate Kerry, quoting a Harry Truman line: if you run a Republican against a Republican, a Republican always wins. Dean is off-base; Kerry is no Republican. He has accepted corporate interest money; he has also advocated public financing. He has taken on the CIA and the corruptions of international banking, opposed Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, and led the campaign against drilling in the Alaskan wilderness. Sure, he’s pro-NAFTA and has flirted with the Democratic Leadership Council on a few issues. He is not a Wellstone Democrat. But he is not a faux Democrat. As Dean continues to lose ground, how far will he go in his efforts to delegitimize Kerry?
There aren’t enough Deaniacs. It was no surprise Dean ran poorly in every state. Still, the Dean argument–pre-Iowa–was that he was bringing hundreds of thousands of new people into the Democratic Party and that his followers had (in a revolutionary manner) created their own local efforts for Dean free of central command in Vermont. His new people and this new form of Internet-driven organizing produced lots of money for Dean, but they have not yielded what Dean needs most now: votes. If he had indeed given birth to a fresh and different sort of electoral movement, then he could have been expected to do better in these states, even without television commercials. Is the lesson, it’s damn hard to break the lock of conventional politics? Or, as I’ve asked before, is it, elections boil down to the man, not the movement? And how long will Dean hang in there? Previously he pointed to Super Tuesday on March 2–which includes primary contests in New York and California–as the do-or-die moment. But as he was interviewed by Larry King, Dean talked about the Florida primary, which is March 9. [UPDATE: On February 4, Dean sent out an email to his supporters saying that the decisive contest for his campaign will be the Wisconsin primary on February 17: “We will get a boost this weekend in Washington, Michigan and Maine, but our true test will be the Wisconsin primary. A win there will carry us to the big states of March 2-and narrow the field to two candidates. Anything less will put us out of this race.”]
Money doesn’t change everything. In recent decades, the candidate with the most money at the start of the primaries won the nomination. That pattern is not holding. Dean had $42 million as the voting started–far more than Kerry. Yet it hasn’t been enough to buy Dean a single win yet. And he has spent about $40 million of that campaign treasure so far. After his third-place finish in Iowa, Dean received a boost in contributions. His campaign claimed $1.8 million poured in, mostly through the Internet. But was that the last fundraising hurrah for the Dean camp? The Edwards campaign has claimed that his win in South Carolina would bring an increase in contributions. Perhaps. But high-dollar funders might need to see more than a victory in his birth state before they consider Edwards a good investment. Only Kerry can assume he’s in the money. Everybody–especially big-money campaign contributors looking for access–loves a winner.
Can Clark click? Wesley Clark had a good day in Oklahoma (after spending an entire week there) and he placed second in Arizona and New Mexico. But in South Carolina–a state with an abundance of veterans–he only grabbed 7 percent. Clark and his advocates have been claiming for months that he plays well in the South. Yes, another Southerner was on the ballot. But if Clark is such a natural fit for the South, why could he not hit double digits in South Carolina?
Sharpton is no broker–and doesn’t deserve to be. The nightmare of Democrats–Sharpton grabs over 20 percent of the vote in South Carolina–did not come true. He netted 10 percent–which he called “astounding.” Ten percent is not a bad showing for a charlatan but nothing to write home about for a serious candidate. And if anyone wants to complain about labeling Sharpton a “charlatan,” they should first read the recent Village Voice article by Wayne Barrett that details how Roger Stone, a Republican operative known for underhanded trickery, has been providing political, legal, strategic and financial assistance to a grateful Sharpton. It seems Sharpton–who has previously played footsie with GOPers (such as when he endorsed Senator Al D’Amato, an ethics-challenged conservative)–is not above being a stooge for Republicans, who no doubt appreciate his ability to vex and mau-mau the Democratic Party. But African-American Democrats are not falling for his I-have-a-scheme campaign. According to the exit polls, in Missouri, half of them voted for Kerry; only one-fifth backed Sharpton–who at the debate in New Hampshire could not tell the difference between the Federal Reserve and the International Monetary Fund. Still, Sharpton is talking about keeping his scam alive until the Democratic Party convention and demanding a primetime speaking gig there. (Republicans must be drooling at that prospect.) He does not warrant such an honor. If I thought it would make any difference, I’d call for him to exit the race. Since there are fewer of those dull debates, there’s less need for the comic relief he provided.
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