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Would One-Two Punch Sew Up the Race for Howard Dean?

If one Democratic presidential contender finishes first in both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, is the race for the Democratic nomination automatically over? [IMGCAP(1)]

The developing conventional wisdom seems to answer “no,” especially if that candidate is former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. But in this case, I’m not so sure that the conventional wisdom is right.

The argument that victories in Iowa and New Hampshire won’t necessarily lock up the Democratic nomination is based on the primary calendar, the dynamic of campaigns and the size and nature of the party’s field.

With proportional representation guaranteeing that no single candidate will build up a big early delegate advantage, and a front-loaded system offering many in the field opportunities to bounce back in early February, even a candidate who wins the first two tests faces a multitude of challenges.

Then there is the very nature of politics, which invariably produces an “alternative” to the frontrunner. George W. Bush and Al Gore had to fend off Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Bill Bradley, respectively, just as Barry Goldwater had Nelson Rockefeller, Walter Mondale had Gary Hart and Hubert Humphrey had Eugene McCarthy.

Ultimately, say many, the same thing will happen to the Democrats this year, even though we don’t yet know who those two candidates will be.

For some Democrats, the possibility that Dean will win both of the first two contests enhances the chances that an extended two-man race will develop.

According to this view, the nature of the Vermonter’s appeal — and questions about his strength in the general election — guarantee that elements of the party will rally around an alternative, whether Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), retired Gen. Wesley Clark or somebody else.

“There are lingering issues. Even people who are excited about [Dean] worry about whether he’ll get slaughtered in November,” one Democratic operative told me recently. That doubt could well generate a burst of enthusiasm for an alternative who is perceived as more electable.

History, unfortunately, isn’t much of a guide about whether going 2-for-2 in both Iowa and New Hampshire sews up the Democratic nomination. Ed Muskie won the nation’s first caucus and first primary but lost his party’s nomination in 1972. Jimmy Carter won both and went on to win the nomination and the White House. No nonincumbent has swept both contests since then. (Technically, both Muskie and Carter finished behind “uncommitted” slates.)

But the inherent dynamics of the presidential selection process suggest to me that, in the long run, any Democratic hopeful who sweeps the first two tests will not be stopped. And that includes Dean, who right now is the one Democrat most likely to finish first in both states.

I’m not suggesting that two early victories will produce nine quick withdrawals from the race. Other candidates will persevere. But any candidate who wins both Iowa and New Hampshire will have demonstrated a breadth of appeal and a political skill that should benefit him or her in other states.

Let’s get specific. What might happen if Dean wins the first two tests?

If Dean wins Iowa, Gephardt is out. Yes, expectations have changed for the Missouri Congressman, who is no longer seen as a slam dunk in the Hawkeye State. After Dean’s move in the state polls, a Gephardt victory in Iowa would actually boost the Missouri Congressman’s prospects. Still, Gephardt’s allies acknowledge that if he doesn’t win in Iowa, he’s toast.

A Dean win in Iowa would likely generate enough of a media bump to help him win in New Hampshire, where he has already shown considerable momentum. If he wins in the Granite State, he lands a serious, possibly fatal, blow to Kerry’s prospects.

After two wins, arguments about Dean’s electability would seem silly. You can almost hear consultants Joe Trippi and Steve McMahon ask: If other Democratic candidates have greater appeal, why couldn’t they beat Dean in either of the first two contests? In fact, the rest of the field would include nothing but losers.

And consider the media coverage during the last two weeks of January. Dean would be treated as the insurgent who took over his party. Already a good speaker, he would ratchet up his criticism of President Bush and call on his primary opponents to rally behind him to bring a Democrat to the White House.

At that point, other Democratic presidential hopefuls would find themselves answering process questions about their campaigns — taking them off message and forcing them to spend most of their time defending their own candidacies. Voters hate that.

No, the former Vermont governor wouldn’t run the table after New Hampshire, but he wouldn’t need to. He would have built up enough momentum to run well everywhere, adding delegates in every state. His money would continue to pour in, while other candidates would find their funding drying up and their supporters slipping away.

Clark’s entry into the Democratic contest, and the unexpected support that he quickly picked up, certainly scrambles the presidential race. But it’s still hard to imagine any candidate who sweeps Iowa and New Hampshire not winning his party’s nomination eventually. And that keeps the heat on Gephardt to win in Iowa, and to keep the Democratic race wide open.

Rothenberg Political Report

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