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The Revenge of the Pols 

John Kerry and John Edwards are more conventional candidates than Howard Dean and Wesley Clark — and they may be stronger, too

Thursday, Jan 22 2004
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NASHUA, NEW HAMPSHIRE — So much for organization.

The shock troops of the Democratic Party — Dick Gephardt’s aging industrial unionists and Howard Dean’s teen phenoms — turned out their vote on Monday, only to discover that their targeted voters had shifted allegiances. John Kerry carried Howard Dean’s college towns and won 35 percent support among caucus-goers under 29, a full 10 points higher than Dean. Kerry also won 29 percent of union household voters to Gephardt’s 22 percent, and among voters with no college education, clobbered Gephardt by better than 2-to-1.

The voters of Iowa and New Hampshire live in a different political universe than the rest of us: If they want, and often even if they don’t, they get a close-up view of the presidential candidates. (One study of New Hampshire Democratic primary voters in 1992 found that fully 25 percent of them had shaken Bill Clinton’s hand.) Howard Dean has all but lived in the two states, visiting every one of Iowa’s 99 counties. In Dean’s case, presence made the heart grow colder. Under pressure, Dean exhibited more apoplexy than grace, and Iowans’ affinities turned elsewhere.

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Dick Gephardt’s relation to blue-collar unions, meanwhile, was always a curious one: He had led their cause in one losing battle after another (NAFTA, China’s admission to the WTO, the biennial fight to retake the House). The reason that many of these unions gave for supporting Gephardt was that the Missouri congressman “had been there” for them — not that he’d won, not even that they thought he’d win this time around. He proved to be a rather flat trumpet for the sector of the labor movement that doesn’t really know how to run effective field campaigns in any case.

Gephardt’s campaign did have one salutary effect: He helped to steer his party in a more populist direction. On caucus night in Iowa, John Kerry spoke of “the imbalance of power in the American workplace,” and John Edwards was pitch-perfect describing the gap that has widened between the America of the rich and the America of everyone else. For that matter, if Howard Dean proves as much of a flop elsewhere as he did in Iowa, he, too, can still be credited with turning the Democrats into a more combative party. And, like Gephardt, handing his message over to more able messengers.

 

On caucus night in Iowa, I was in the New Hampshire headquarters of the man who wasn’t there (in Iowa): Wesley Clark. As the returns came in, it became apparent that at least some Clark operatives had seen better nights. The jury is still out on which candidate George W. Bush fears most, but it’s clear that the candidate Clark fears most is John Kerry.

The political space that Clark meant to fill when he entered the race last fall, after all, was pretty much the political space that Kerry had been supposed to fill, but had failed to do so. They were both tough doves: guys with serious national-security credentials but critics of Bush’s belligerence and largely liberal on domestic policy. Guys who would win the women’s votes, but with just enough macho so that they wouldn’t get wiped out among men.

For the better part of 2003, however, Kerry flubbed his mission. His explanation of his vote authorizing war in Iraq was defensive and convoluted, even as Dean was winning away his backers with his attacks on the war and on Democrats who supported it. Kerry, who can be a very compelling speaker when he’s on, wasn’t on. He didn’t just have to connect with voters, he had to reconnect with them, and he seemed baffled by the challenge.

Enter Wesley Clark, the four-star multilateralist, the general who’d helped, indirectly, to depose Slobodan Milosevic in a much more agreeable way than that in which Bush had deposed Saddam Hussein. If Kerry sounded as if he’d been in politics way too long, though, Clark sounded as if he’d been in politics not at all. For a time, he was all contradiction and rockiness, but he quickly learned the ropes and started to connect — most of the time, anyway — as the doves’ idea of an acceptable hawk.

On Monday, though, the prairie gave up its dead. John Kerry lived again, as did John Edwards — at least through the seemingly eternal lifetime of the next month of primaries. They are the more conventional of the four candidates now duking it out (Dean and Clark are contenders; Joe Lieberman is barely a fifth wheel, and a squeaky one at that). But Kerry and Edwards lay a more convincing claim to lead the Democrats than Dean or Clark. They’re at the center of the party (which is nowhere near where the center-right Democratic Leadership Council thinks it is), and certainly more sure-footed challengers to Bush than their two rivals.

From the Democrats’ perspective, Kerry had the perfect Vietnam War — repeatedly putting himself in harm’s way, saving his comrades’ lives, and returning home to become the charismatic leader of Viet Vets Against the War. Wearing his fatigues, he went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, concluding his testimony with a mighty question: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” In his early years in the Senate, he displayed some of that young man’s indignation against the arrogance of power, spearheading the investigations into the Iran-contra scandal and the BCCI affair.

In the Senate, Kerry amassed a solid liberal record — pro-labor, pro–civil rights, pro-environmental par excellence. It was, however, a patrician’s liberalism — he favored free-trade agreements and tax breaks for high-tech companies. His commitment to free trade began to waver somewhat during the fight to give the president fast-track authority in late 2002; he authored an amendment that would have made it more difficult for trade accords to overturn state environmental and labor protections. The amendment failed, and Kerry voted for the overall bill. But of the four viable candidates running for president, his record is by any measure the most liberal — far more so than Dean’s as governor of Vermont. Dean has run to Kerry’s left during most of this campaign, but that reverses their respective positions for the past two decades. (Liberals’ love affair with Dean may someday look as confounding as the 1950s liberals’ love affair with Adlai Stevenson — who discreetly opposed new civil rights laws and national health insurance — now appears.)

In a sense, both Kerry and Clark are résumé candidates — war heroes for an election in which security concerns loom larger than they have since the early ’60s. But Kerry’s heroism has seemed more personal and palpable than Clark’s, what with Viet vets emerging to tell how John Kerry saved their lives. Moreover, Kerry’s résumé is devoid of those items on Clark’s CV that should tend to give a Democrat pause — such as Clark’s support for most GOP presidential candidates over the past quarter-century.

The two candidates have also evolved contrasting manners while on the campaign trail. Clark, who needs to boost his support among Democratic women, is the nurturing general, talking about his concern for the welfare of the soldiers he’s commanded and their spouses and children. Kerry, who needs to connect more viscerally with working-class voters, now talks with outrage about the travails of American workers. If Iowa’s vote is any indication, Kerry is succeeding at this mission, but then he’s always run strong among working-class voters in Massachusetts.

Wesley Clark is now fighting a two-front war. In New Hampshire, he must go up against Kerry in a fight to see who’s the more compelling war hero. The following week, in South Carolina, he must contest North Carolina Senator Edwards to see who’s the more electable in the South. But Kerry is fighting a two-front war as well: against Clark, but also against Dean for the allegiance of liberals. In the Iowa caucus entrance polls, he lost to Dean among the 17 percent of voters who called themselves “very liberal” by a 32 percent to 28 percent margin; among the 39 percent of voters who called themselves “somewhat liberal,” Kerry bested Dean by 35 percent to 21 percent.

The first post-Iowa John Zogby tracking poll of New Hampshire Democrats, released Tuesday night, showed Dean at 25 percent, with Kerry on his heels at 23 percent, Clark fallen back to 16 percent, and Edwards and Lieberman at 7 percent. In the small Tuesday-night-only sample, Kerry actually led Dean by 2 percent. If Iowa demonstrated anything, however, it’s that a lot can change in a short period of time. The four major candidates coming into New Hampshire will almost surely all go on to the multistate primaries of February 3, but in what order we do not know.

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