By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It was exactly one week before the caucuses that polls began to detect the shift toward Kerry and Edwards. Dean and Gephardt, who was making the ill-fated last stand of his three-decade political career here, had been brutally slugging each other in escalating negative campaigning. Gephardt accused Dean of wavering in defense of Medicare and fair trade. Dean ran a barrage of TV ads branding Gephardt (and Kerry and Edwards) as pro-war “Washington Democrats.”
Kerry and Edwards stayed out of the dogfight (at least on TV, as the Kerry campaign did circulate some pretty nasty anti-Dean mailers) and started looking better and better to Iowa voters — by now weary of incessant political advertising and nonstop campaigning.
Dean had already been softened up by a trio of factors: earlier and often coordinated attacks from his rivals (culminating in some dandy race-baiting by Al Sharpton), Dean’s habit of biting himself with his runaway mouth (any takers here to sit on Osama’s jury?) and by the “gotcha” nitpicking to which the media always subjects front-runners.
Dean spent the last week stressing the issues that so dramatically catapulted him to the front last year, his steadfastness against the war in Iraq and his willingness to directly confront — or, as he liked to say, “stand up to” — George Bush. “Finally, this is the Howard Dean we’ve been missing the last few weeks,” former Iowa Congressman and current Dean spinner Dave Nagle told me as he approvingly watched his candidate fulminate against Bush during one of the dozens of campaign stops this week. “When he stops being aggressive, he falls behind. Got to be aggressive on that war issue.”
But Dean had become a victim of his own anti-war success. As he zoomed to the top of the polls over the last half of 2003, Dean should be credited with markedly moving the rest of the Democratic field to the left — especially on the war issue. But as he nudged Gephardt, Kerry and Edwards toward increasingly critical views of White House policy in Iraq (Senator Edwards voted against the $87 billion additional Iraq funding allocation last November), Dean gave more and more Democrats even fewer reasons to vote for him.
“I opposed the war from the first day,” said a 35-year-old insurance salesman who showed up at one of Kerry’s campaign events in Des Moines. “Kerry voted for the war because as a U.S. senator he pretty much had to. What counts now is that he’s against the way Bush is carrying out and he knows how to get us out of it.”
That pragmatic, non-ideological view was broadly borne out by the caucus post-mortem polls. Three out of four caucus-goers opposed the war, but only 14 percent considered it their top issue. Kerry got more of those anti-war votes than Dean. He also got more of the youth vote, and even a bigger share of the voters who said they relied on the Internet to shape their decision.
The internal Democratic debate had dramatically shifted. It wasn’t a question of which candidate was against the war (they all were in some way). But who could beat Bush? Or, to use that dreary favorite phrase of the pundits, just who is most electable?
“Our campaign is different than other Democratic campaigns because we can’t beat Bush by being Bush Lite,” Dean, flanked by Martin Sheen and Rob Reiner, thundered from the stage at the Iowa State Fairgrounds last week as he kicked off his final campaign bus tour. “The way to beat Bush is to reach out to the 50 percent of Americans who gave up voting because they couldn’t tell the difference between Democrats and Republicans — we’ve got to give them a reason to vote.”
A few days later, while fervently campaigning with Dean at a community college in Marshalltown, Iowa, favorite son Senator Tom Harkin laid out in stark terms what he saw as the strategic key to a Dean victory. “I’ve gotten tired of watching Democrats battle Republicans for a dwindling pool of voters!” Harkin railed from the stage in his best prairie-populist drawl. “But never in my life have I seen anyone like Howard Dean so able to expand the party by attracting new voters. Never in my life!”
But that wave of first-time voters who were supposedly ramped up against conventional establishment candidates broke in favor of the other guys. Almost half of Monday’s caucus-goers were virgins to the process. And turnout was a near record, twice as high as in 2000. But Kerry harvested 36 percent of the new vote, Edwards 24 percent and Dean only 22 percent. Indeed, Kerry won broadly in every demographic devised by the National Election Pool: young and old, college-educated and not, union and non-union households, men and women, “strong Democrats” and self-declared independents.
Watching Kerry campaign, it was often difficult to discern where he was going, let alone up to. Ponderous and thoughtful — maybe to a fault — the stiff and dour Kerry often stumps like Gray Davis, but without the tight focus. Midweek he went to the trouble of chartering a helicopter to ferry him around on a much-hyped, seven-stop “chopper tour” zigzagging the state. But when he got to those campaign stops, Kerry futilely struggled to break through his too-usual Boston Brahmin sedateness.