It Ain’t Over ’Til It’s Over, And It Ain’t Over

Posted January 21, 2004 at 3:25pm

Could we just forget about that column I wrote in the Nov. 13 issue of this newspaper? It’s the one in which I said that the Democratic race was probably already over, and that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean had an “80 percent” chance of winning his party’s presidential nomination.

Let’s just pretend I never wrote that, OK? [IMGCAP(1)]

Democratic caucus attendees on Monday evening made me (and more than a few others) look like an idiot. It wasn’t just that Dean finished third. It was how weak his showing turned out to be. One Democratic insider put it best when explaining to me what happened in Iowa the week before the caucuses: “All the laws of politics still apply. They just applied later than normal this time.”

So where are we today? At the risk of making yet another mistake, let’s survey the damage.

Sens. John Kerry (Mass.) and John Edwards (N.C.) come out of the gate like thoroughbreds in full gallop. It’s not just that they drew terrific crowds in the final days before the caucuses, or that they finished far ahead of the others.

Kerry and Edwards obviously are connecting with Democrats, and that’s a good sign for each. Kerry has already seen a big bounce in New Hampshire.

Two factors are in play — leadership and likability. That Democratic consultant who told me six months ago that Iowa Democrats will use a different yardstick to measure the candidates after Jan. 1 — a yardstick that evaluates the candidates against some notion of appearing “presidential” — certainly turned out to be correct.

If Kerry isn’t the warmest guy in the world, he’s much better than he was six months ago. And Edwards is, to quote a phrase his Iowa co-chairwoman, Roxanne Conlin, used often, “on fire.” He’s a terrific speaker and has a compelling work/wealth economic populist message about the “two nations” that exist in this country.

Dean’s most pressing task is to convince people that he isn’t certifiably crazy. That could be difficult after that Monday night appearance, in which he sounded like Linda Blair’s character in “The Exorcist.”

Dean’s biggest problem is that Kerry and Edwards have now stolen — yes, stolen — his anti-special interest, “change” message. Apparently, he had the right message but was the wrong messenger. Somehow, he needs to re-make himself, and he needs to do it quickly. That means he needs to do well in New Hampshire, win somewhere (New Mexico?) on Feb. 3 and continue to build momentum throughout the month.

Can he do any or all of that? Possibly. As one smart Democratic insider told me less than 24 hours after Dean’s bizarre caucus night meltdown, “Dean appears to have pivoted quickly.” He’s back to issues and policies, and away from talking about creating a “movement.”

Dean never lacks for commitment or passion, and he appears to have the broadest fundraising base. In spite of his third-place showing in Iowa, he also appears to have a loyal army of foot soldiers ready to be dispatched to states where they can make a difference.

Democratic insiders agree that New Hampshire is fundamentally a better state for Dean than was Iowa, and a win there would probably re-establish him as the frontrunner in a race in which nobody seems to want that label.

More than anyone else, the former governor has run, and can continue to mount, a national effort, and that could pay off in early March. So don’t discount him as long as he can keep his cool.

Money remains a major issue for Edwards, who continues to have a big bet riding on South Carolina. The Tar Heel State Senator has obvious regional appeal, but he also may have some other advantages.

Influential Rep. James Clyburn’s (S.C.) cousin works for Edwards’ campaign, and Edwards has more experience wooing and connecting with African-American Southerners than anyone else in the race. Edwards’ message has paralleled Rep. Richard Gephardt’s for months, making him a potential heir to much of the Missouri Congressman’s support.

Still, there are questions about whether Edwards will be able to run effectively in a large number of states at the same time.

Some people may now be assuming that Kerry has become the frontrunner. If he wins New Hampshire, I’d agree. But we aren’t there yet.

Insiders who should know insist that Kerry “cannibalized” his efforts everywhere else to make his Iowa comeback. That includes New Hampshire, South Carolina and other early February states. That was smart, since an embarrassing loss in Iowa would have finished him, but the decision still has consequences.

Kerry is nowhere in South Carolina, and his strategists need to make some tough decisions about how to direct their resources. For Kerry, it’s all about momentum and priorities right now.

That leaves retired Gen. Wesley Clark. Clark’s team finds itself facing a different reality than expected. Instead of a two-man contest with Dean, the campaign is in a brawl and finds itself eclipsed by other candidates.

Missouri now becomes a fascinating test. Can Dean “steal it” by moving resources and volunteers into the state, which had been conceded by all to Gephardt? Does Clark do battle there, possibly distracting his focus from South Carolina on Feb. 3?

The Democratic race is now widely described as a tossup. Nobody now has an 80 percent chance, or a 60 percent chance or even a 50 percent chance of winning the Democratic nomination. Dean still has more advantages than his competitors do, but also more question marks. I’m not sure where this race is going, but I know it’s going to be fun.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of Rothenberg Political Report.