The Word from N.H.: Beats Me


By Lee Walczak Memo To: The Editors

From: Lee Walczak

Re: The Presidential Race From New Hampshire

Date: January 26, 2004

You asked about the Democratic primary campaign. We struggling on-site scribes, of course, have no clue. New Hampshire crowds are big, the onlookers enthusiastic, and everyone loves everyone. What's a pundit to do?

John Kerry seems to be comfortably in first in N.H., coasting on his non-Deaness. He's running a replay of Al Gore's "the people vs. the powerful" 2000 campaign and is slightly more credible in the role than Big Al. That's because Kerry has at least been a pretty consistent liberal, if not exactly the sweaty populist that his strategist Bob Shrum (also responsible for Gore's approach) is painting him as.

Plus, Ted Kennedy is traveling with Kerry now, and he's aglow. He's channeling his failed Presidential campaigns through Kerry's lanky body, and it seems to be quite an invigorating experience.

"WARTS AND ALL." Second in New Hampshire could still be Howard Dean, who's trying to bounce back from his Iowa fizzle, or John Edwards, who is moving up fast. No one knows where Dean will end up, except few think it'll be first place anymore. It's supposed to snow in New Hampshire on primary night, and Dean is probably praying for a blizzard. He has the idealistic college kids and the hardcore antiwar crowd that could turn out for him while the born-again Kerry supporters decide to sit home in front of the fire. But then, we heard the same thing in Iowa, and it turned out that there weren't as many Deaniacs as folks thought.

Dean's new slogan seems to be "Oh, the humanity," and in his new "warts and all" persona he paints his goof-ups as the oh-so-human response of an average guy. But the old, feisty Dean still breaks through every now and then. He has started depicting Kerry as a trimmer who changed votes to go with the flow while Governor Dean stood up and made the "tough choices." (Note to Deaniacs: Apparently, turning aside a fairly consistent record as a New Democratic moderate to run as a fiery populist is exempted from the Tough Choice category. Must have been grandfathered in...)

Wesley Clark is losing steam fast as more and more people see him as an insincere, make-believe liberal. He should have run as a nonpolitical centrist -- a John McCain-type who was firmly pro-military and talked about fiscal discipline. Instead, Clark's Clintonista staff turned him into a me-too liberal, and the graft isn't taking. Clark is mouthing the words but isn't making music.

BUM ADVICE. At this point in New Hampshire, Kerry is attracting more independents than Clark. The general needs to regroup and rethink in South Carolina, because he's getting some bum advice. Clark also has a campaign payroll about the size of the Third Infantry Division, and he needs to realize that more troops aren't the problem. He's the problem.

Edwards is moving up at a faster clip than anyone but Kerry, but he started from a pretty low base. He could finish anywhere from second to fourth, but I suspect second or third seems most likely. He gives the best stump speech in the business -- he's a cross between a revival meeting preacher and a "yes you can!" motivational speaker (see BW Online, 1/26/04, "Highs and Lows from New Hampshire").

He's so good-looking it hurts. And his Kennedyesque "Two Americas" schtick goes over well with idealistic New Hampshirites. Still, Edwards is a little too packaged for some, and it's unknown whether he'll play in the industrial heartland where Kerry will try to rally shellshocked labor skates to his side. The South is supposed to fall at Edwards feet, but if that's so, why is he so unpopular in his home state of North Carolina? Folks, meet "Slick Johnny," the political heir to you-know-who.

THE NEXT PHASE. Overall, the Democratic race has become a personality contest, since everyone in the field moved to the left of Marx & Engels when Dean was surging. Now the candidates all sound the same -- fervid Big Business bashing, talk of income redistribution, promises of huge new entitlement programs, and lots of antiwar sentiment. The cries of "fairness" and all the fulminations about "powerful special interests" (environmentalists, feminists, and labor unions are excluded from this category) serve to rally core Dems. But this approach will be an anchor around any Democratic nominee's neck come November.

Assuming that Kerry, Edwards, and perhaps Dean and Clark get a ticket out of New Hampshire, (Joe Lieberman? One tracking poll has Joltin' Joe as high as 10%, but if he can't even snare second someplace, what's the point of going on?) the next phase of the race on Feb. 3 will hinge on a few key states. Looming ahead are a suddenly Gephardt-less Missouri (lots of delegates, no one has any organization in the state -- it's all done with media here) and South Carolina, where Edwards may knock off Clark or vice versa.

I still think it'll be all but over on Mar. 2, with Kerry the new front-runner and getting a big push from anti-Dean Dems, and Edwards a possible wild card. If Edwards starts beating Kerry in the South, it could get interesting. But then, it's almost never interesting in the homestretch.

THE "FAIRNESS" THEME. So to reiterate, what's "in" at the moment in Demo-Land is class warfare, pandering to the "middle-class" (Census Bureau be damned, this turns out to be anyone whose family income is $200,000 or less) with the promise of free tuition, near-universal health care, and pristine streams. All the candidates promise to banish the lobbyists and moneychangers from the Washington temples and return to cozy multilateralism and U.N.-sponsored groupthink.

Since the economy is mending rapidly and the war in Iraq may have hit a turning point with the capture of Saddam Hussein, the Democrats have decided that "fairness" is a theme that will give them something to talk about against George W. Bush. Beats yakking about the weather, I suppose...

What about Bush? Well, his State of the Union was a dud, (he went down in polls instead up), Congress is shrugging off his new immigration initiative and laughing at his proposed Mars-exploration venture, and his White House political gang looks positively klutzy of late (how about Bush naming controversial jurist Charles Pickering as a recess appointment on the eve of Martin Luther King Day -- great timing, huh?).

REREAD AND DELETE. The economy is supposed to save the President in November, but if Edwards is the nominee, he faces a potentially brisk fight. Ditto with Clark (unlikely now). With Kerry as the Democratic standard-bearer, it looks like an eminently winnable election for Bush, assuming no Beirut Marine barracks-type fiascoes in Iraq. Terrorism outbreak? Helps Bush, not the Dems despite their insistence that homeland security is porous. It would likely prompt Americans to rally around the President.

Note bene: Given the volatility of the race, this analysis has a margin of error of, oh, let's say a zillion percent. Go back to the top of this report, reread the line that says "we don't have a clue." Then hit the "delete" button. Maybe after I return from South Carolina and Missouri, I'll know more. Maybe not... Walczak is BusinessWeek's Washington bureau chief. Follow his dispatches from the campaign trail in the magazine and on BusinessWeek Online


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