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Interim Report: Grading Democratic Presidential Hopefuls

How are the Democratic candidates doing? For the presidential campaigns, any evaluation must consider both the qualities of the candidates, as well as the various elements of the campaigns. Here’s how I think the six top-tier Democrats are faring: [IMGCAP(1)]

1. Candidate Qualities. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has shown energy, enthusiasm and the ability to connect with voters. While he has put his foot in his mouth more than a few times, he has shown the capacity to take a hit and keep fighting. Yes, Dean is angry, but that’s apparently what Democratic activists and voters want.

Rep. Richard Gephardt has shown many of the same qualities. Like Dean, he has become a passionate speaker, and nobody is more focused or hard-working than the Missouri Representative. Who said Gephardt is boring?

Sens. John Edwards and John Kerry obviously haven’t connected as well with voters, though both have their fair share of charisma, passion and energy. Maybe the North Carolina Democrat looks or sounds too young. Kerry often sounds imperious, and he hasn’t lived up to his early billing as someone who sounds like a president. Instead, he too often sounds out of touch.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark has the self-confidence of a general. But he has contradicted himself too much, and since he entered the race, he has become merely one of a number of candidates chasing Dean.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) comes across as a thoughtful and very decent man. But he doesn’t convey a sense leadership or confrontation, which Democrats want. He isn’t a dynamic speaker, and he obviously isn’t connecting.

Grades: Dean and Gephardt, A-; Edwards, B; Kerry, B-; Clark, C+; Lieberman, C.

2. Money. The FEC totals tell most of the story, but you also must consider the fact that by rejecting federal funds, Dean and Kerry won’t be limited by state and national primary spending limits. The noteworthy numbers belong to Gephardt, who has disappointed in this aspect of his effort. Clark apparently is having a very strong fourth quarter, which he’ll need to make up for his late start.

Grades: Dean, A; Kerry, A-; Clark, B+; Edwards, B; Lieberman and Gephardt, C.

3. Message: Clarity and Effectiveness. Dean leads the class in both departments. His message on the war resonates and motivates, as does his outsider/change theme. Gephardt is right up there on both counts with his working class/fighter message. Lieberman’s message is clear, but it’s simply the wrong message for his party. He’s delivering a military sciences message in an art history class. Edwards’ message (about President Bush valuing wealth, not work) is clear, consistent and effective, though it obviously hasn’t grabbed the voters the way he had hoped.

In comparison, Kerry’s message has not been as compelling. He talks primarily about his résumé, and when he gets to substance and imagery, it’s standard Democratic stuff. Clark talks in detail about Iraq (and only Iraq), often sounding as if he is still a TV analyst. His message is sometimes muddled.

Grades: Dean, A; Gephardt, A-; Edwards, B; Kerry, Lieberman and Clark, C.

4. Field Organization. Dean, Kerry and Gephardt have displayed the ability to put together strong efforts on the ground in at least one early state. Dean and Kerry have been particularly successful in a number of states.

Lieberman and Edwards have made an effort, with the Connecticut Senator showing some success in New Hampshire and out West. Still, he has bypassed a key early test. Edwards has put together respectable organizations in both Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as in South Carolina.

Clark remains primarily a candidate without a field organization, a result of his late entry into the contest. Still, he gets some points for his Internet organization.

Grades: Dean, Kerry and Gephardt, A; Edwards, B; Lieberman, C; Clark, D.

5. Strategy. Dean’s Iowa and New Hampshire efforts, his anti-Bush approach and his AFSCME/SEIU endorsements have worked brilliantly. His positioning as an outsider/insurgent has enabled him to catch fire.

Gephardt’s strategy has also worked well. The Congressman released a health care plan before anyone else did, undermining the conventional wisdom that his time had passed. He rolled out his union endorsements effectively and took advantage of a favorable schedule (Iowa-Missouri-Michigan). But Gephardt didn’t win the AFL-CIO endorsement, which undercut his union strategy.

Kerry never figured out how to take advantage of his early frontrunner role. And he never effectively handled the Dean threat. He did establish a national presence, which could ultimately enable him to run a long-distance race of political survival.

Lieberman and Clark wisely made the strategic decision to bypass Iowa, but at a considerable cost. Lieberman’s pro-Iraq war message and Clark’s late entry into the race are serious strategic problems.

Edwards has tried to break out of the field with early TV ads, and his effort to take on Gephardt for the working-class vote was entirely reasonable. He also tried to become the candidate of change, and the guy who could defeat Bush. All of these efforts reflect smart strategy, but so far he has not been successful in his efforts.

Grades: Dean and Gephardt, A; Edwards, B; Kerry, Clark and Lieberman, C.

6. Intangibles. Dean has momentum, and a pair of consultants who have his confidence and have excelled at positioning him. Gephardt seems to be emerging as the alternative to the Vermonter, which adds to his momentum and buzz. He has a group of loyal advisers whom he trusts.

Clark hopes a major TV buy will jump-start his campaign. The former general has a great résumé and still looks as if he could be one of the most “electable” Democrats. And since he entered the contest so late, he still has “potential.” Where does Lieberman win, and how does he overcome his Iraq war position?

Edwards continues to be everyone’s dark horse, and he often impresses during debates and TV interviews. As a Southerner, he too can make the “electable” argument. Kerry’s campaign shakeup doesn’t help him, and he has failed to meet early expectations. Still, he still has more stature and substance than most of his opponents.

Grades: Dean and Gephardt, B+; Clark, Edwards and Kerry, B; Lieberman, C.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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