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Resurrection of the Two Johns

Photo by Kate O’Connor

WEST DES MOINES, IOWA — When the Democratic caucus of the 116th Precinct convened Monday night in the Rex Mathes Elementary School auditorium, a long line of eager parka-bundled participants snaked into the freezing streets of this modest, middle-class neighborhood. Just as the insurgent Howard Dead campaign had confidently predicted, this precinct and the nearly 2,000 others meeting across Iowa at the same hour were being flooded — even inundated — with energized, first-time caucus-goers. The only glitch was, they weren’t coming out for Dr. Dean.

All week long the polls — wildly unreliable in a state where people caucus instead of ballot — had been suggesting that putative front-runner Dean was slipping and that the two Johns, Kerry and Edwards, were surging.

Now that trend was quickly materializing.

Volunteer workers at Rex Mathes scrambled to register on the spot — as Iowa law allows — the deluge of voters either coming in for the first time or switching to the Democrats. Among them was a clump of Dean supporters notably younger than much of the rest of the crowd. But also signing up were a greater number of independent, unaffiliated and even disaffected Republicans, many of them wearing Kerry or Edwards buttons.

After perfunctory pitches from a designated rep from each campaign, the 121 Iowans present — in the bizarre and endearing ritual of caucus voting — cast no ballots but instead gathered in different corners of the room to stand literally for their preferred candidate. On the lower right-hand side of the room, about 10 gathered for veteran Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt. Bad news for Dick because caucus rules require a candidate to get a minimum of 15 percent to be counted.

Worse for the supporters of Dennis Kucinich who were present: a grand total of two standing next to four or five “undecideds.”

But up in the right-hand corner of the room, a giddy, chattering knot of Edwards supporters sounded off their numbers: “35,” “36,” “37,” “38!”

“Thirty-eight! Whoa!” shouted out the last supporter, a well-dressed young woman who was showered with applause.

Across the room, a burly local Fire Department lieutenant, Bill Post, who’s precinct captain for the Kerry campaign, had even more to celebrate as he counted 44 supporters for the Massachusetts senator.

Right in front of them stood the more subdued group of Deanies. Ross Anderson, a third-year law student at nearby Drake University, dressed in a pale-yellow Dean precinct-captain T-shirt, slowly counted and re-counted the former Vermont governor’s followers and came up with only 24, a tick less than 20 percent.

After this initial count, the caucus-goers were given a half-hour more to horse-trade, to cajole the undecided, the orphaned Kucinich and Gephardt supporters, and anyone else for that matter, to come over to their candidate’s side before a final count.

“The war issue, it’s the war issue,” said 23-year-old Courtney Thompson, a full-time Democratic Party worker, as she stood on the stage and urged the audience to defect to the Dean corner. “The way we went over there was wrong. And I have a problem with people being against the war only after they voted for it. It’s . . . it’s bad judgment.”

Standing behind Thompson as she made her plea, I could clearly glimpse the sea of older, unblinking and unconvinced faces staring back at her. It all sounded like she was begging Granny for the keys to the Mercedes, and Granny wasn’t going for it.

By 7:45 p.m., the final tally of the 116th was in. Kerry, 48. Edwards, 48. Dean, 24. One vote, Iowa’s secretary of state, who lives in the neighborhood, was undeclared. As the Kerry and Edwards campaigners whooped it up and slapped each others’ backs, the Deaniacs stood quiet and visibly disappointed, like some sinister and invisible force had just squeezed the breath out of them. They reminded me of a moment 14 years ago when I saw a group of Sandinista Youth stand listless and shell-shocked in a Managua plaza as the news rolled in that President Daniel Ortega had lost the election and that their revolution — which they thought would re-shape Nicaragua for generations to come — had just been voted out of power.

I’m not trying to draw any cute comparisons between Ortega and Dean. I’ll leave that to Rush Limbaugh. But the Dean campaign did come into Iowa with the sort of cocky crusading confidence and sense of inevitability that produced a very Sandinista-like hubris. At once the insurgent and the most-moneyed candidate, an outsider but with all the insider endorsements, and buoyed by a vast network of fervent, out-of-state, orange-capped volunteers (who are also quite reminiscent of the sandalistas who pilgrimaged to Managua throughout the 1980s), Dean was supposed to have all the bases covered. Instead, he mightily struck out. Cut this anyway you please, but finishing 20 points behind John Kerry and more than a dozen points behind John Edwards — a candidate who had been struggling for media attention only two weeks ago — is nothing less than a catastrophe for the Dean campaign.

 

The Dean supporters mistook their own moral fervor and their undeniably intense level of commitment and loyalty for political popularity. They may have wanted to “take back the Democratic Party,” but there was another 80 percent of the party — at least here in Iowa — that wasn’t giving.

 

 

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.

Fresh off the chopper, he showed up in the gritty town of Fort Dodge — the gypsum-mining capital of America — in his pressed chinos and navy-blue blazer, his blood pressure and pulse rate seemingly unfazed by the breakneck helicopter run over the frosty plains. A crowd of about 100 patiently awaited him in a community-college cafeteria bereft of any students. I could only identify four or five supporters in the room who were under 50 years old.

The 60-year-old candidate fit right in. To a round of applause he slowly walked into the room and methodically shook some hands, rationed out a few tentative hugs and began a rather meandering stump speech.

Yet, it seemed to connect. The man’s obvious intelligence provides wide margins for his less-than-stellar public-speaking skills. Kerry’s pitch is his résumé, his experience, his presidential gravitas. In deftly and richly capitalizing on his well-deserved war-hero status, Kerry devised what turned out to be a brilliantly successful formula for taking Iowa. If Gephardt banked on organized labor to get out the vote, and Dean on his volunteer crusade (and a different set of unions), then Kerry appealed directly to Iowa’s small army of 90,000 military veterans. He assembled a “Veteran’s Brigade” that relentlessly rang the doorbells and worked the phone banks. Activists from firefighter unions across the country also enlisted in his campaign.

They all responded hungrily to Kerry’s incessant pitch, that only he among the Democratic candidates had any credibility or believability on military and security issues. Indeed, only when Kerry reached this portion of his stump speech did he seem to become impassioned. Evoking a standing ovation from the two dozen or so vets in the Fort Dodge audience, Kerry raised his voice and firmly said: “We will not win the presidency unless we have a nominee who can stand up to George Bush and Karl Rove and Don Rumsfeld and, in the best tradition of FDR and Harry Truman, show that Democrats can defend our nation just as well and better than Republicans!”

Then with what comes as close as possible to gusto in Kerry’s world, he recited what has become his campaign mantra: “If George Bush wants national security to be the issue in November, then I’m your candidate. I have three words that I know even he will understand: BRING — IT — ON!”

Only a few weeks ago, Kerry’s campaign had been pretty much AWOL, presumed dead by much of the media. But Kerry decided to go all-out in Iowa, taking out a mortgage on his mansion to help fuel a sustained push toward the caucuses. He’s the grown-up, adult candidate offering responsible, mature and steady leadership. And, to boot, he argues, his war-hero standing renders him immune to any charges of sushi-lovin’, latte-sippin,’ Volvo-drivin’ weakness. While not flinching from lambasting Bush, Kerry strains to distinguish himself from Howard Dean when he ends his rap by saying, “What we need today is not just anger. What we need are answers.”

Scores of interviews with Kerry supporters confirm the appeal of that message. “I was leaning toward Dean, but I decided to give all the other candidates a hearing before I decided,” said a 46-year-old Des Moines bookkeeper who described herself as a “health-care voter.” “I came over to Kerry because I just found him more believable.

 

 

The real Comeback Kid this week is North Carolina Senator John Edwards. Before Christmas, he was floundering at 5 percent in the Iowa polls. With only the most modest of a ground-level organization, and with none of the legions of volunteers fielded by Dean, Kerry or even Gephardt, he exploded into a second-place finish with 32 percent and immediately set off chatter about a possible Kerry-Edwards ticket. Or maybe the other way around?

A telegenic, boyish 50, the self-made millionaire is an enormously personable candidate. Think of him as the Good Bill Clinton. The razor-smart, honey-tongued son of the South, but not covered in Slick Willy’s layer of oil.

It’s not hard to find people who disagree with him, but those who dislike Edwards are scarce. It was breathtaking to watch his support visibly swell in the last handful of days before the caucuses. His events just got bigger and louder and more effusive and electric. This is what “catching fire” really means. By the end of the week, his routine events were drawing overflow crowds infected with an almost evangelical fervor. His efforts were fueled by an unexpected bombshell endorsement from the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s flagship daily.

Edwards drew much of his unpredicted strength from wisely positioning himself as the positive, upbeat “candidate of hope.” While that phrase was designed to set him apart from the more pugnacious Howard Dean, Edwards meticulously avoided attacking or even criticizing any of the other candidates. He reserved his fire for George Bush, and in doing so became increasingly a comfy safe harbor for voters turned off by negative campaigning or leery of Dean’s more bumptious style. “I’m wavering between Edwards and Dean,” said Portia Halferty, a retired public employee, as she listened to Dean campaign in Des Moines. “Dean gets too stressed out. I don’t want someone like that in the White House.”

As a senator who voted for the Iraq war resolution and is mostly a free-trader, Edwards has drawn skeptical rebuffs from the left. But he has nevertheless developed a compelling show-no-mercy, class-based populism. He cranks up his crowds with a fiery denunciation of the “two Americas” — the central theme of Arianna Huffington’s book How To Overthrow the Government.

“There really are two Americas,” Edwards told a cheering throng assembled in the downtown Des Moines Savery Hotel. “One of wealth and privilege who can afford anything they want anytime they want. And another America for everybody else who is just struggling to make ends meet.”

Lashing out against insurance companies, oil monopolies, HMOs and corporate greed, promising to “cut the lobbyists off at the knees,” and calling a halt to “the war profiteering going on in Iraq,” Edwards offers himself up as the steadfast defender of the little guy. His personal narrative is equally compelling — and he knows it. Born to common stock, Edwards worked his way through school, sometimes unloading trucks, and became one of North Carolina’s most feared anti-corporate personal-injury litigators. He touts his record as a corporate dragon-slayer, boasting, “I beat ’em, I beat ’em, and I beat ’em again!”

He rather courageously dedicates long stretches of his stump speech to decrying the plight of 35 million Americans living in poverty and to lecturing on the evils of racism. Take his stump speech and put it in the mouth of progressive favorite Dennis Kucinich, and probably 95 percent of the latter’s supporters couldn’t tell the difference.

Edwards’ snowballing support was consistently underestimated. Even when his surge was unmistakable, he was still being written off. Just hours before the caucuses convened, several pundits had tagged Edwards as the “515 candidate” — that is, having his only stronghold in the 515 area code, Des Moines. But Edwards had been assiduously cultivating the remote, rural areas left untended by his competitors, and for his efforts he reaped a bonanza. If this campaign had lasted another week, Edwards might have likely overcome Kerry and taken first place.

 

Then again, from inside the Dean campaign, the feisty Vermont governor also looked unstoppable, invincible. That’s the problem with all political campaigns: They become self-deluding, self-referential bubbles.

The Dean bubble was humongous. The conventional wisdom in Iowa is that it’s all about “organization, organization, organization,” it’s all about the capacity of a candidate’s field operation to identify sympathizers and then motivate them — maybe even cart them through sub-zero winter cold snaps and blizzards — to go to their local precinct caucus.

Dean had all the money. And the organization you can buy with it. “This is a new generation of campaign,” said an awestruck local Democratic Party official in assessing the Dean operation. “Al Gore couldn’t have dreamed of this four years ago.”

 

Those 3,500 volunteers, dubbed the Perfect Storm and touted by the Dean campaign, were all real. The volunteer headquarters took up a whole city block. The campaign rented up to 120 vans for them, armed them with 400 cell phones and lodged them in a network of winterized cabins and campgrounds. “We’ve rented up pretty much every vehicle left in Iowa,” laughed Dean staffer Christy Setzer during a midweek interview. “We had to start asking volunteers to bring in rental cars from across the border in Omaha.” The Dean computer databases had a place for everybody and everybody in their place, churning out tens of thousands of phone calls each week. A half-million dollars or more was spent on TV ads in just the last week.

The press operation was well-oiled, perfectly synchronized, highly sophisticated, and painstakingly catered to every need of the hordish press corps, right down to mobile “wi-fi” hot spots at every filing point. The 650-mile, four-day, cross-state bus tour rolled along without as much as a bump.

Sheen and Reiner and Joan Jett and Janeane Garofalo vigorously performed and campaigned alongside Dean, and helped draw impressive crowds. Judging by just the sizes of the campaign audiences, no one would ever think that the doctor was in the trouble he found himself in on Monday night.

And without question there was and is something different about the Dean supporters. They are not just motivated, they are inspired, full of the sense that there is much, much more at stake in all this than in selecting a nominee. Last week, an excited, 24-year-old Diana Silbergeld came to the Perfect Storm office after arriving in town from Philadelphia. An environmental organizer, she was about to be joined by her parents flying in from Santa Monica and a sister coming in from Connecticut — all to volunteer together for Dean. “I’m here because Howard Dean is not our usual politician,” she explained as she filled out the Dean volunteer forms. “He’s not spending his time talking about himself. Instead, he’s bringing in new voters to the party, bringing in people who see what he has done and want to be part of this.”

That sort of optimism coursed through the closing event of the Dean bus tour, held on the eve of the caucuses in the liberal, student stronghold of Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa. If Dean had any knockout weapons, this was supposedly his arsenal. A report from the Secretary of State’s Office a few days before had reported an avalanche of new voter registrations. And Iowa City was at the top of the list with about a 300 percent increase over last year.

Surely, many thought, this was hard evidence of the depth of undercounted Dean strength. Students, young people with cell phones off the radar of the polls that were showing Dean’s slippage, were registering in droves and preparing to stand for their insurgent candidate.

A full hour before the doors of the university’s cavernous Memorial Union opened, there was indeed a six-deep throng of Dean supporters waiting to get in. By the time a leather-clad Joan Jett performed “I Don’t Give A Damn About My Reputation,” the fire marshals had declared the hall was at capacity. A Dean staffer asked the orange-hatted Perfect Storm volunteers to “make one more sacrifice” and exit to a spillover room nearby.

From the press bleachers at the back of the event, straining under the weight of a battery of cameras and reporters, the crowd seemed to number about 1,500 — an awesome number in such a small state on a night with a wind chill factor of minus ten.

Howard Dean, fresh from his visit earlier in the day with Jimmy Carter, was buoyant, smiling and grinning and high-fiving the sweater-clad Tom Harkin by his side. The young crowd — at least compared to the platinum-haired standards of Iowa — and amply warmed up by a rocking Jett set, playfully chanted, “We Want Dean! We Want Dean!” and throatily roared its approval to yet one more rendition of Dean’s combative stump speech.

The electric atmosphere was palpable. You could stand on the floor of that event and look up at the gesticulating Dean, the mosaic of wall posters from the SEIU, AFSCME and the painters union — which have all endorsed Dean — and soak up the vibes and the energy, and convince yourself that this was not a campaign but a movement. And a movement that was bursting with potential to reconfigure American politics.

Related Stories:

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. By Harold Meyerson  

Is That All There Is? Bush runs out of policy and hews to a narrow political attack. By Harold Meyerson

Under the Iowa Radar Hanging with the general’s supporters, and the post-caucus party scene. By Joshuah Bearman

And maybe part, or even most, of that reverie was arguably true. Yet to convince yourself of that notion, you had to avoid a whole series of other much more uncomfortable thoughts: that politics is the art of building coalitions, and that moral righteousness and certitude are no substitute for the hard work of outreach and persuasion. The concept of a Dean-like campaign is an inspiring one, even though this time its reality, and certainly its candidate, can be deeply flawed. And that on a much more mundane level, Howard Dean’s poll numbers have consistently run in the 20 percent to 25 percent range over the last number of months. Those weren’t bad numbers for a former Vermont governor who a year ago wasn’t as much as a statistical bleep, and they certainly indicated that his campaign from out of nowhere was a striking symptom of something or another. But what about that other three-quarters of the Democratic voters? How did the Deanies think they might be inclined?

Part of the answer was unfolding 100 miles to the west in the capital of Des Moines. Unbeknownst to the 1,500 Dean supporters rallying in Iowa City, and at virtually the same hour, John Kerry, with the very conventional Ted Kennedy on his flank, were concluding their own closeout campaign event. And the crowd was twice as big as Dean’s.


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