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?