Super Showdown in New Hampshire Is Good for Democrats

Posted January 26, 2004 at 3:38pm

Politics is like football — the preseason seems to last longer than the season, and losers are sometimes winners because of wild cards.

Today the 2004 presidential campaign season kicks off with the nation’s first binding primary in New Hampshire. And the Democratic voters who drag themselves to the polls in sub-zero temperatures and snow will determine who goes to the next round, who goes to the showers and who needs a Hail Mary to stay alive. [IMGCAP(1)]

As proven in Iowa last week, Democratic voters are looking for the strongest candidate to defeat President Bush. While Bush operatives were spinning the surprising results of the caucuses as incomplete, no one should look at a tight and prolonged primary race as an indication of indecision or divisiveness within the Democratic Party. In fact, it’s quite healthy and refreshing to see Democratic activists continue to shop around for a candidate who possesses strong leadership qualities to champion the party’s agenda and stand up to a ferocious GOP assault on its values. For many political observers, this is a political battle of major proportions for a return to civility in government and the continuation of our long march for justice, equality and opportunity for all Americans.

A tight primary race should indicate that Democratic voters are looking closely to see who can best stand up to White House strategist Karl Rove’s brand of politics. In the 2000 presidential campaign and the 2002 midterm elections, Democrats should have learned a great deal from Karl’s “take no prisoners” style. It’s a playbook that Democratic strategists have come to understand and must be prepared to counterattack soon after the party’s nominee is selected. Otherwise, political observers should expect Rove, Southern political guru Ralph Reed, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist and others to unleash an aggressive offensive scheme that could place the nominee on the defensive months before the actual fall campaign kicks into gear. That is why Democrats in New Hampshire should think long and hard before voting today. The results tonight will likely winnow the field and force the remaining viable candidates to make some important strategic decisions for the next quarter of the game.

The best part about this front-loaded calendar is the assortment of states that follow Iowa and New Hampshire. A week from today, Democrats in South Carolina, Delaware, North Dakota, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona and Oklahoma will tell us who can really take a hit and who can sustain momentum. Politics is about passion and energy. Those states — along with Michigan, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin and Washington — will call upon the first-string candidates to display their passion and stamina. Ultimately, these states will not only determine who the nominee is, but what kind of party we have become in the post-Clinton-Gore era. Some may like the results, but many of the party’s current crop of leaders will leave the field feeling rejected.

I understand their feelings, but the truth is rank-and-file Democratic voters must have their say too — even if we disagree with the results. They want a nominee to be proud of. They want a nominee to stand up to Bush, the Republican-controlled Congress and the jobless economic recovery. They want a leader to arouse their progressive passion of standing up for working people, fighting special interests and keeping our country safe and secure from future threats of terrorism. They are looking for a strong quarterback — agile, fast on his feet, quick thinking and cool under pressure.

Today in New Hampshire, Democrats can add yet another important play to their playbook — the support of independents or nonaligned voters. Independents, who make up more than 38 percent of the electorate in the Granite State, are key players in the party’s electoral recipe. Piece by piece, play by play, the next round of primaries and caucuses will determine who makes it into the Super Bowl of politics — the convention in Boston. With seven teams remaining on the field, someone is about to be tossed out of the game. No matter who leaves the race, the candidates should be applauded for helping Terry McAuliffe’s Democratic Party regain its voice and sea legs. This primary season is getting under way at a time when the nation’s oldest political party could use a jolt to its system.

For civil rights activist Al Sharpton, next week is the equivalent of “Showtime at the Apollo.” Sharpton, with his fiery oratorical skills and abilities honed by years of preaching, must now prove that he can garner the African-American vote. These voters, more than any other segment of the Democratic base, are hungry for a new leader who like former President Bill Clinton will govern with fairness and inclusion. Regardless of the outcome in New Hampshire, if the frontrunners ignore or fail to compete effectively for African-American votes and other core Democratic voters, they will pay dearly in the fall — not to mention at the Boston convention. Sharpton has vowed to fight to the convention. By reaching out now, Sharpton’s campaign, which lacks a clear agenda, will run out of steam when the ice starts melting in the Potomac. There’s no question, mixed results in February could force the Democratic primary race into overtime. But I doubt it.

The game has just begun. We’re months from the nominating convention, but already there are signs of new life and vigor among Democratic activists and voters. The 2004 Democratic primary season, like the NFL season, is worth watching and the candidates are worth cheering on. It’s been fun watching from the sidelines. I thought by now “the political itch” to get involved would have returned and I would be out there running some of the plays. On caucus night, I got sick to my stomach. It wasn’t an itch. I ached for Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) — one of the kindest and most honest and respectful public servants I have ever worked for. Dick left the race as he will soon leave the Congress — with grace, humility and dignity.

Politics produces both winners and losers, but when you decide to play the game, America wins. This time, hopefully, for the Democratic Party and the values they represent, its voters will cheer for a winner.

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grassroots political consulting firm.