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Primary Notes

Dean Reborn

The crowd in the Southern New Hampshire University gym was still waiting for Howard Dean when John Kerry’s victory speech came on TV. With half the precincts counted, it was clear that Kerry had a bigger lead over Dean than the exit polls suggested it would be. Kerry was at a much smaller but better-appointed room over at the Holiday Inn (he always books the central locations). He looked a little tired, but the room kept him going, breaking into a chant of when, when, when, when after Kerry started a point in the speech by saying, “If I become president.”

A half-hour later, Dean appeared at his party. He had learned his lesson in Iowa. His fans greeted their leader with a five-minute roar before he gave a speech that hit all the right notes. Dean thanked the voters. He said soberly that they were going to win the nomination. And then he invoked elements of his stump speech: restoring a sense of community, Bush playing the race card, and health care. I’d heard it all before, but somehow it sounded fresher this time, earnest again. At the mention of health care, a supporter next to me yelled, “Go Howard, Sweden, Costa Rica, Go Baby!”

His best points touched not on specifics but on appeals to optimism that undergird his campaign message, the idea of making politics meaningful, giving people a reason to vote again. Sure, they are slogans, and all the candidates (except Lieberman) say similar things, but with Dean they ring truer, and not only because the other campaigns stole those pages out of Dean’s notebook. They all mean it, but Dean meant it first.

And Dean seems to be thinking about the legacy of that message. Before Dean arrived onstage, he gave an interview to Larry King that riveted the throng gathered in the gym. When asked what’s next, Dean replied, “We have to keep the enormous support of the grassroots,” which got a stomping cheer. To his supporters, Dean has started a movement. It may have a softer crescendo than they had envisioned, but it still represents something new, something they hope will outlast the primary season even if Dean doesn’t win. And that’s a seed Dean may be planting. A few minutes later, Dean told King that his campaign is not about changing the officeholder of the presidency; it’s really about changing the country. And that got the loudest cheer of all.

Chasing the Dragon

Seeing John Edwards is like crack: You’re always trying to recapture the supreme high of the first time. My initiation came during the homestretch of Iowa, when Edwards’ “under-the-surface” campaign was shooting straight out of the water like a goddamn submarine. The hall at Drake University was mobbed. I wound my way up close, poked my head up from behind a big Old Glory lining the Senator’s riser, and bore witness to a man who knew how to light a room on fire. The audience hollered in a boisterous call and response. They went into a frenzy at each of Edwards’ stop lines. Two people fainted. Edwards was shooting sparks and his hair was still perfect.

Since then, I’ve seen Edwards half a dozen times, hoping to get showered with sparks again. It’s just not the same.

Last Sunday, Edwards was at Fairfield Junior High in Nashua. It was an afternoon rally in the school’s gym. There he was, sharp suit and lavaliere. Perfect hair. Incredible smile. Then, the speech — unchanged since the last time. But these people hadn’t heard it before, so they got excited in most of the right places: “We need to put a stop to these predatory lenders, fleecing American’s families”; “You know what we’re gonna do with these lobbyists? We’re gonna cut ’em off at the knees”; “And you know what else? We’re gonna put a stop to all this war profiteering that’s going on in Iraq”; “This democracy does not belong to the insiders in Washington; it belongs to you, and us

But it doesn’t quite have the same ring on the third or fourth listen. I am still convinced by his politics of optimism, but when he talks about his time with the Senate Intelligence Committee to show that he has foreign-policy experience, it makes me second-guess him even more for voting for the Patriot Act. And over time, I developed the feeling that Edwards looks almost too good, like a televangelist. He always knows exactly where the lenses are pointed, when to wave, how to look fatherly when children are hoisted up to say hello or ask a question. Which is crucial in today’s invidious Möbius strip of media and politics — look what happened to Dean when he forgot where the cameras were — but I can’t shake the idea that it feels funny for a candidate to be so slick. And, to top it off, I’ve started noticing that Edwards always wears running shoes with his suits, which is kinda weird, right?

 

And yet, I keep trying. Edwards’ final rally in New Hampshire was at the Palace, an old-time vaudeville proscenium where the Marx Brothers and George Burns used to take the stage. The place was mostly full, even up in the balcony. There was a chance for real fireworks again, since it was a perfect setting for Edwards: dramatic, gold-filigreed, designed for performance. It was the day before the primary, the last push. But it was still not quite satisfying. Edwards shows no fatigue, but he can’t muster up enough energy to fill the entire room. The audience claps and hollers again, and maybe it’s my jaded ears, but the magic of the night before the caucuses is missing. Still, I do feel a twinge when he hits those notes about this democracy being our democracy, about fixing what’s wrong in Washington, and I find myself hoping that he gets a bigger bounce than some are predicting in New Hampshire, so I can keep trying to chase that Edwards high to keep me warm through the winter.

RUDY IN 2008?

Ex–New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s parachute drop into New Hampshire’s Democratic fray last Saturday was well-timed, but poorly choreographed. The bus pulled up to a place called Nacho’s Taqueria, where Bush volunteers had gathered. The watering hole is stuffed in the back of a basement restaurant in this tight, indoor mall sort of building that was not really conducive to accommodating a large crowd. Giuliani’s descent into Nacho’s required three tough pushes: through a crowded entrance, down a crowded stairway, and then across a crowded restaurant floor to a little media setup where he made some very quick remarks.

Also inopportune was Nacho’s main-drag location on Elm, not far from the Dean, Edwards and Kerry headquarters. And Nacho’s happens to sit just between the Gourmet Café, where there’s free wireless, and therefore a constant ad hoc Kucinich field office, and the Dunkin’ Donuts, which is sort of the Jezreel Valley of Democratic activity in downtown Manchester, since all the armies of campaign staffers and volunteers pass through daily. So when the bus pulled up, Giuliani and his supporters were surrounded by a confederation of Democratic foes from each camp. The usual chants— “EDWARDS — Oh yes — ’cause John is the best”; “JK All the Way”; “We want Dean!” — gave way to a unified chorus of No Bush! No Bush! No Bush!

I saw it all from inside Dunkin’ Donuts, where I was sitting with John Hlinko. He’s the technologically inclined political consultant who began the Draft Clark movement, which means he, and he alone, is the reason why Clark is running around New Hampshire talking about family values and trying to defend Michael Moore on Meet the Press. We had seen the crush of Giuliani’s arrival right up close, but decided to ditch Nacho’s when it got too hot. “I like Giuliani,” Hlinko said as we sat down with a couple French Krullers. “I would vote for him.” I asked if he would have started a Draft Giuliani movement, and he said yes. Which makes Hlinko something unusual: the originator of what seems to be a sudden, small, but extraordinarily passionate, grassroots centrism.

But it’s an open centrism, rather than the narrow bandwidth where you can only tune in Lieberman. That’s why Clark is on the cover of The Advocate this month, and why Hlinko chatted easily with a small Kucinich crew who came in from the cold. “Kucinich is pretty cool,” Hlinko said. “I think he has a lot of good ideas. Tell you what, I’ll take a look at Kucinich if you take a look at Clark. He’s a good man.” They left Hlinko with a copy of Kucinich’s well-designed newspaper foldout with the bold-type pronouncement: “Fear Ends. Hope Begins.”

It’s a great slogan, actually — the basic theme that the Democrats will have to drive home against the Republicans in November. Which, it happened, was just then being foreshadowed again outside by the Bush-Cheney bus. Giuliani and company had debouched back onto the street into the mass of waiting Democrats. Placards up again: Clark; Edwards; Kerry; Lieberman; Dean. And the chants too. It was an encouraging chaos. “Ever read The Hobbit?” I asked Hlinko. “Yes, why?” he asked. “The Battle of the Five Armies,” I said. “The Elves, Dwarves, Men, even the Eagles — they all unite at the end to defeat the evil Smaug circling overhead.”

“Hey, there he is!” one Kucinich supporter said. “Let’s go out there.” And they lifted their signs and stepped back out into the cold.

 

Hanging at JD’s

The best hotel in Manchester is the Holiday Inn on Elm and Granite. It’s not a great hotel, but it’s been full for weeks, since the press and campaigns book there early so as to not wind up in the many less desirable lodgings around town. On the ground floor is JD’s Tavern, the bar and restaurant that is the closest thing to a primary power hangout in New Hampshire. On any given night these days, the place is filled with writers, correspondents, TV producers, campaign strategists, press secretaries, and floating among them are the luminaries: George Stephanopolous, Chris Mathews, Peter Jennings, and my favorite sighting, Garry Trudeau.

Monday night, JD’s was packed, more so than usual because it was the day before the primaries, and the race was getting tight. “These are our predictions,” said Scott Beale, a longtime volunteer with Rock the Vote, who had dispatched a delegation to New Hampshire four days ago. Beale handed me a beer coaster with some very precise numbers on it: Kerry — 30.3; Dean — 27.7; Edwards — 16.7; Clark — 13.4; Lieberman — 8.3; Kucinich — 1.4. The volunteers foresaw a surprise Dean run and were hoping for Edwards to do better than he had been polling the day before, especially since they were still stoked from an Edwards shoutout for Rock the Vote at the Palace earlier that night. “Why the decimal points?” I asked Holly Teresi, who was sitting next to me. Teresi is the communications director for the Youth Vote Coalition, of which Rock the Vote is a member. She handed me another beer coaster with a set of predictions from all five people at the coalition’s booth, with a column at the side that was averaged by row to get an aggregate prediction. Impressive. “We’re Ivy League,” said Teresi.


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