After New Hampshire: Running Out of Time to Catch John Kerry

Posted January 28, 2004 at 3:42pm

Sen. John Kerry kept his perfect record intact on Tuesday, winning New Hampshire solidly and adding to the momentum he built following his victory in the Iowa caucuses. Since Jimmy Carter in 1976, Kerry and Al Gore are the only nonincumbents to win both Iowa and New Hampshire, and Kerry’s showing makes him the clear favorite to capture the Democratic nomination. [IMGCAP(1)]

Kerry’s showing puts increasing pressure on the other candidates in the race to register wins next week, when five states will have primaries (Delaware, South Carolina, Missouri, Arizona and Oklahoma) and two will have caucuses (New Mexico and North Dakota).

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who finished second on Tuesday, demonstrated resilience by not collapsing totally in New Hampshire, while retired Gen. Wesley Clark and Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), who finished third and fourth, could benefit from the playing field, which now moves South and West. But all three men face a difficult road ahead.

A few months ago, it appeared that South Carolina would be the third test in the Democrats’ early trifecta. Now, it seems certain that the major Democratic candidates will scatter to different states, diluting the importance of any single contest.

The new arithmetic of Feb. 3, which changed after Rep. Richard Gephardt dropped out of the race and put Missouri up for grabs, makes it difficult for Kerry’s opponents.

Before Iowa, it appeared that national attention would focus on the South Carolina primary, with Arizona and New Mexico also receiving attention. But Kerry’s allies have already started to downplay the importance of South Carolina, a state not expected to play to the Massachusetts Democrat’s strengths.

South Carolina Democrats insist that their state will and should be the focal point of next week. They note that Kerry announced his candidacy in the state and that its large African-American population means that no serious contender can afford to treat the primary casually.

They may be correct, but Kerry appears likely to emphasize delegate-rich Missouri, where none of the Democrats has an extensive organization. He has former Gephardt strategist Steve Elmendorf to coordinate his efforts, and his momentum from two straight victories should give him an advantage.

Kerry’s momentum actually makes him a threat in virtually all of the Feb. 3 states, since the positive media attention he is generating from Iowa and New Hampshire is likely to produce at least some sense of inevitability for his ultimate nomination. Because people like to associate themselves with winners, Kerry should be able to capitalize on his successes.

Dean appears likely to emphasize New Mexico and Arizona next week, while Edwards and Clark probably will make South Carolina and Oklahoma their top priorities. To his credit, Edwards is not trying to back away from his earlier (and quite correct) assessment that he must win the South Carolina primary next week.

Kerry has now done what looked impossible just a month ago — win the first two Democratic contests. He appears relaxed but focused, hitting the right notes when he attacks the Bush administration on a range of issues.

In picking Kerry, New Hampshire (and Iowa) Democrats didn’t select a message as much as a messenger.

As I traveled around Iowa and New Hampshire attending candidate events during the past two weeks, it was easy to see that all of the top-tier Democrats are offering the same message to voters.

They bash “No Child Left Behind,” attack the prescription drug benefit passed by Congress, declare their opposition to poverty, inequality and discrimination and, in increasingly vocal ways, portray the Bush administration as beholden to its cronies and special interests, including polluters, the big drug companies and HMOs.

They also criticize the president’s handling of the war in Iraq and his overall approach to foreign policy. And they all portray themselves as forces for change.

Sure, Dean tries to distinguish himself on his opposition to the war in Iraq and the administration’s education agenda, but if you read a speech given by one of the top-tier Democrats, you couldn’t be sure whether it was delivered by Dean, Kerry, Edwards or Gephardt. And you’d have to do a month’s work of research to try to figure out who stole what issue and what rhetoric from whom.

The lesson from Iowa and New Hampshire is that Democrats in those states prefer that message coming from Kerry, who, more than the other contenders, both looks and sounds like many voters’ idea of a president.

As the race moves South and West, we will see whether Democrats in those parts of the country also prefer Kerry or whether they find a different messenger more appealing. The Massachusetts Democrat should see a bump in his poll numbers nationally, giving him an opportunity to close the deal with Democratic voters in the weeks ahead.

Dean, Edwards and Clark sounded suitably optimistic Tuesday night. But they too must realize that time is running out for them to stop Kerry’s bandwagon. And Feb. 3 is when they need to do it.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.