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Kerry Goes National 

Edwards hangs in, Dean vanishes, and Bush provisionally tanks

Thursday, Feb 5 2004
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I. Kerry the Conquerer

ST. LOUIS — “To defend every place is to defend no place,” Frederick the Great once cautioned, but John Kerry was every place over the past week, and emerged from the process with the Democratic presidential nomination all but wrapped up.

Kerry was the only Democratic candidate to campaign during the seven days following New Hampshire in all seven states holding primaries or caucuses this past Tuesday. No other candidate campaigned in more than four, save only Joe Lieberman, who visited five. (There was no state in which Lieberman was doing well enough to justify his presence.)

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Kerry spent parts of three days in South Carolina, two in Missouri, and one in each of the five remaining states. Wesley Clark, by contrast, spent a least a portion of each of the seven days in Oklahoma and bombarded it with advertising, and John Edwards was in his native South Carolina for six of the seven.

Tuesday’s results prove that if you set up housekeeping in a state, you may well win it. Clark eked out the narrowest of victories in Oklahoma, while Edwards won handily in South Carolina. On the other hand, Clark finished a dismal fourth (with just 4 percent of the vote) in the biggest state to vote Tuesday, Missouri. He ran fourth in Carolina and fifth in Delaware. Edwards ran out of the money (a distant fourth) in Arizona, New Mexico and North Dakota, and a weak third in Delaware.

Kerry, however, defended every place. He not only posted five decisive victories, but ran a strong second in South Carolina, and got 27 percent of the vote in Oklahoma, where Clark and Edwards each pulled down 30 percent. The exit polls everywhere make clear that the breadth of Kerry’s support isn’t merely geographic. He runs well, and with roughly the same levels of support, across lines of class, age, gender, education, race and ideology. If not a Democrat for all seasons, he certainly has become the Democrat for the season of defeating George W. Bush.

Kerry’s triumph in the largest of this week’s contests, the Missouri primary, was one of neither organization nor media. Missouri was the most peculiar of primaries, of course, since no campaign had any intent of even campaigning here as recently as two weeks ago. The state belonged to veteran St. Louis Congressman Richard Gephardt, but when Gephardt finished an unexpected fourth in neighboring Iowa and withdrew from the race, the state suddenly belonged to nobody.

Kerry’s campaign didn’t hire a state director until two Saturdays ago, just 11 days before Tuesday’s primary. He was, however, able to win the endorsements of the state’s most prominent Democrats — former Senator Jean Carnahan and the mayors of St. Louis and Kansas City — which guaranteed that his rallies in those two cities were well attended. Beyond that, the endorsements weren’t worth that much in the way of organization. An election-eve visit to Kerry’s state headquarters — two rooms leased to the Fire Fighters Union in a community center in a residential section of St. Louis — turned up a total of 14 volunteers, which was more than enough to staff the bank of nine telephones.

Firefighters, veterans and other Kerry volunteers had been active elsewhere; Kim Molstre, the campaign’s Missouri press secretary, estimated that they’d made 7,000 voter contacts in the seven days since New Hampshire, 57 percent of whom said they’d back Kerry. Considering that roughly 400,000 Democrats voted in the primary, though, it’s hard to argue that the contacts had much bearing on the outcome. Nonetheless, Kerry won Missouri with 51 percent of the vote, with Edwards running a distant second at 25 percent.

And it wasn’t Kerry’s ads that turned the trick, either. They scarcely existed. Kerry shelled out $125,000 statewide, just $40,000 in the St. Louis media market, the state’s largest. Edwards also spent $40,000 in St. Louis, which means that both were outspent by the campaign of perennial lunatic Lyndon LaRouche, who paid $51,000 to the city’s CBS affiliate to run a half-hour exposition of his latest conspiracy theories. (The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the show got higher ratings than reruns of Seinfeld and The Simpsons, which should convey some sense of just how dull things really are here.)

Kerry was endorsed by the Post-Dispatch and the Kansas City Star — the state’s largest dailies — but I doubt even the publishers of those papers would claim that they put Kerry over the top. The real causes of Kerry’s victory were a good deal more telling than any endorsement. The Show Me state wasn’t even looking at the process so long as Gephardt was in the race, but his withdrawal coincided with Kerry’s surge. Missouri tuned in to the campaign when Kerry was at the top of his game, his stump speech tightened into a hard-hitting attack on the administration’s plutocratic policies and a ritual of male bonding with his fellow Viet vets. One respondent to the poll that the Post-Dispatch ran on Sunday called Kerry “straightforward and tough.” Try to think of the last time that a Democratic presidential candidate was called “tough,” and you have some sense of just how devastatingly effective the Kerry folks have been at conveying their message.

And success breeds success. The exit polling in every state has shown that the growing number of Democrats most concerned with finding a candidate who can beat Bush tend to flock to Kerry, and this was surely the case in Missouri. The election-eve polling in USA Today and on CNN that showed Kerry leading Bush 53 percent to 46 percent in a national matchup clearly bolstered Kerry going into Tuesday’s contests.

II. Edwards the Exception

Edwards emerged from his South Carolina victory talking electability, too. His stump speech has long contained a passage in which he asserts that he’s the only candidate who can carry the South. It’s a debatable assertion, no less so for Edwards’ victory in South Carolina. If Edwards can in fact carry South Carolina or Oklahoma over Bush in November, it will mean that Bush is going down in 45 states — hardly a likely scenario.

The question is whether Edwards’ fair-trade positions make him a stronger candidate — or, more plausibly, a stronger running mate for Kerry — in the industrial Midwest. To be sure, the gap between Edwards and Kerry on the trade issue is one that Edwards exaggerates. The North Carolina senator condemns Kerry for supporting NAFTA, but Edwards wasn’t in the Senate, nor was he a public official of any kind, when NAFTA passed. Edwards was in the Senate in 2000, when Bill Clinton’s proposal to extend permanent normalized trade relations to China came before that body, and both Edwards and Kerry supported it. Neither, in fact, is the kind of global social democrat that ‰ Gephardt has been, but both have modified their free-trade orthodoxy over the past couple of years as the global hiring patterns of U.S.-based corporations have come to undermine the American economy. There is a major difference between Kerry and Edwards, but it doesn’t pertain to their economic positions. It’s that Kerry has national-security bona fides, and Edwards has none.

Nevertheless, Edwards leaves South Carolina with an expectation of quick support from at least one industrial union, and perhaps more. Such support would surely be too little and too late to help Edwards much in Saturday’s caucuses in Michigan, but it would be a statement from these unions that they think Kerry would strengthen himself in the swing states of the Midwest by adding Edwards to the ticket.

If the industrial Midwest is one of the two swing regions in the November runoff, however, the Southwest is the other. And while Edwards has yet to demonstrate much strength in the industrial Midwest (he did passably well in Missouri this week), he fairly bombed in the Southwest. There, the strongest choice to help the ticket would clearly be New Mexico Governor (and former Clinton Energy Secretary) Bill Richardson, the only Latino governor in the land.

III. Howard Who?

Howard Dean all but vanished in Tuesday’s primaries, in his best states running no better than a distant third. John Kerry holds a daunting lead in the polls preceding Saturday’s caucuses in Michigan, and he is clearly surging in Washington, the other state holding caucuses on Saturday. Washington should be Dean’s state to romp; last summer, he was able to draw 12,000 people to a rally in Seattle. If he’s unable to carry the Starbucks ghetto, however, it will be hard for him to go on.

Some of Dean’s natives are starting to get restless. This past Saturday, one of Dean’s most prominent supporters, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) president Jerry McEntee, addressed a crowd of several hundred enthusiastic members at a union hall in St. Louis. McEntee had two not entirely contradictory purposes as he spoke: to rev up his members for Dean, and to rev them up just as much for the eventual Democratic nominee even if, as McEntee surely suspects, that nominee turns out to be someone quite other than Dean.

“Howard Dean stood for us,” McEntee began. “Dean says that public workers can do the job. He needs a ‘W’ in his column; you’ve got to help him!”

And then McEntee pivoted. “We’re gonna fight like hell for Dean,” he declared. “But let it be understood, our main theme is [and here he dropped his voice to a low rumble] ANYBODY BUT BUSH!”

McEntee then took off after Bush, with a seriocomic diatribe that his members seemed to appreciate far more than they did any affirmation of the former Vermont governor. “If it’s not Dean, we know it’s gonna be a Democrat,” McEntee asserted. “And we’re not gonna be disappointed if we don’t get Dean, because Dean has returned the Democratic Party to the Democratic base, to Democratic principles.”

Among labor leaders, McEntee has always stood out for his frank assertion that he values electability above all in a candidate. It’s hard to envision McEntee indulging Dean’s candidacy much longer unless Dean picks up some immediate victories. It’s also increasingly hard to envision Dean picking up some immediate victories. And if there’s one index of the increasing tenuousness of Dean’s candidacy, it’s that the true-believer Deaniacs are starting to sound like the pragmatic McEntee: Even if Dean has to leave the race, they say, he gave the Democrats a spinal implant. And indeed he did.

By any measure, it’s been a great couple of weeks for Democrats. Kerry’s surge has coincided with Bush’s presentation of the most misconceived State of the Union Address in memory. Dwelling on such mind-boggling minutiae as steroids in baseball, Bush came across as indifferent to and removed from the problems and anxieties of the American people — the very impression that his father so disastrously conveyed during his race against Bill Clinton in 1992. Public anger at Bush is rising. John Kerry has learned from Howard Dean how to mount a credible populist assault on the president. The press has at last turned to the story of how Bush spent the Vietnam War making Alabama safe for the Republican Party. And a Democratic victory come November seems altogether plausible.

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