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The Dems' New Chant: Electability


As the race for the Democratic nomination moves from Iowa's caucuses to New Hampshire's Jan. 27 primary, Democrats find themselves with a five-way horse race and a fickle, shifting electorate. By roaring to a one-two finish in Iowa, Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina have done more than humble the high-flying candidacy of Howard Dean. The Comeback Kids also have led strategists to conclude that liberal activists' desire for an ideological campaign, one-note bashing of the Iraq war, and dreams of mobilizing a silent majority of Netheads may not clinch the nomination.

If the trend holds, Dean's rallying cry of "Power to the People" may be muted as pragmatic voters flock to any contender they deem capable of defeating George W. Bush. The new chant: "Electability, electability, electability."

"A SPASM OF SANITY"

The party's fresh focus on a broader message and attractive, well-coifed messengers may be a passing fancy, of course. That's because Dean -- the retooled, less fervent model -- will fight hard to protect his endangered New Hampshire lead. But for now, mainstream Dems consider a retreat from the fringes a blessing. It's "a spasm of sanity," says a former official in the Clinton White House. "Democrats want somebody who can seize the mantle of national security stewardship from Bush. Without that, we can't win in November."

Of course, Iowa's battle for 45 delegates does not a campaign make. But just the same, the contours of the race are starting to come into focus. For starters, an economy that boosts corporate profits but is slow to generate new jobs has become the top issue, eclipsing the war. Kerry and Edwards are hitting hard on kitchen-table economic issues -- and scoring. That's one reason why Bush, in his Jan. 20 State of the Union address, moved to shore up his flanks. He promised to expand health insurance for the jobless and sought billions in new education funds. His first stop after the speech was Ohio, a swing state where the economy lags and where Bush talked up his plans to spur job growth by making tax cuts permanent, improving worker training, and curbing liability costs.

More significantly, Democrats seem to be responding best to the lunchpail issues raised by Kerry and Edwards -- largely in the form of promises to improve health care and education while shifting government priorities toward the middle class and away from the rich. The result: an updated version of Bill Clinton's 1992 bid to ease the "middle-class squeeze."

BUSINESS-BASHING

Clinton was content to criticize Wall Street excesses of the go-go '80s but refrained from a general assault on Corporate America. New-generation Dems are bolder. With fallout continuing from an explosion of corporate misdeeds, they are ripping into Big Business. No matter who wins the nomination, corporate conduct will be a top theme of the election. And it may resonate. A Jan. 12-15 Gallup Poll found 61% of Americans dissatisfied with the size and power of corporations, a 13% jump since Bush took office.

Kerry -- who began as the Establishment fave -- now attacks excess in executive suites like a riled-up Deaniac. "I'm running to free our government from the grip of lobbyists, the drug industry, Big Oil, and the HMOs," he thundered in New Hampshire on Jan. 20. He vows to "remove every single incentive that rewards any Benedict Arnold CEO or corporation for exporting American jobs overseas."

Edwards echoes these themes and talks up a plan to break the grip of special interests by toughening lobbying rules. He would establish a commission to slash corporate subsidies and promises to use tax and disclosure laws to "rein in outrageous CEO pay." In Waterloo, Iowa, on Jan. 17, Edwards launched into an impassioned critique of the GOP'S cozy relationship with business elites. "I've fought against big drug companies, big insurance companies, big Corporate America," the former trial lawyer said. "I'm proud of what I did."

Will business-bashing score? "It doesn't take a genius to see that in a primary, class warfare works," says Democratic strategist Dane Strother. Long-term, it's dicier. Says Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin: "It's a way to rally the faithful, but it doesn't always work in the general election."

That's why Dean's rivals are developing a smiley-faced version of his message. In reality, policy differences among the candidates are blurring. That has liberated Kerry, Edwards, and the fourth big player in the race, retired General Wesley K. Clark, letting them send an energizing message to primary voters without sounding as divisive as Dean.

At the moment, the main beneficiary of anti-Dean sentiment is Kerry. With his campaign transformed by old hands from Senator Ted Kennedy's political team, the Boston patrician sounds like a working-class hero. Unlike Dean, he would keep many middle-class tax cuts. He also promises to expand health care for the uninsured. The tax cuts that are rolled back would pay for education aid and a sweetened Medicare drug plan. Kerry's trump card is his background as a Vietnam vet and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That appeals to voters who worry about going up against a wartime President.

Kerry has a ways to go to turn his Iowa ambush into a national campaign. He lags Dean and Clark in fund-raising, although Patrick Griffin, legislative director in the Clinton White House, says "the money will come if Kerry scores in New Hampshire." But Kerry also lacks the footsoldiers who could keep Dean and Clark going after a setback. As the race moves South and West, voters may worry that Bush would beat a Northeast liberal. Kerry must finish at least second in New Hampshire to keep momentum.

Kerry dreams of a quick kill in New Hampshire. But Clark would fare better if the race becomes a long march. The former NATO Commander's plan for a Jan. 27 showdown with Dean has been scrambled by Iowa. In the Granite State, Kerry will cut into Clark's support from veterans and older voters focused on national security, so the general from Arkansas needs to finish in the top two to build steam for the South. Then he must dispatch Edwards in Dixie, before confronting the winner of the Kerry-Dean scrum.

LONGING FOR A FRESH FACE

On the issues front, Clark is trying to be Clintonesque. His middle-class tax cut would give a break averaging nearly $1,500 to families of four earning less than $100,000. Many bottom-tier taxpayers would be dropped from the rolls. And like Clinton, Clark is leery of abandoning free-trade pacts.

Even closer to the Clinton-New Democratic tradition is Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), although that link hasn't paid off so far. Lieberman's probusiness tilt and hawkish foreign policy distinguish him from the pack. But he badly trails the front-runners. A poor New Hampshire showing could spell doom.

Edwards is about as far as you can get from Lieberman's sober style. The sunny senator's second-place makes him the wild card in the race. Edwards appeals to voters who long for a fresh face and an upbeat campaign. He's under no pressure to sizzle in New Hampshire but needs to best Clark in the South.

One of Edwards' big advantages is a detailed set of policies aimed at helping the middle class. He would expand tax breaks for workers. He wants tax credits for first-time home buyers, college education, and workers just above the poverty line. He even urges a special capital-gains tax rate for moderate-income Americans. Edwards says this tax-code engineering will end the "two Americas," a rich-poor divide. "He reminds me of John Kennedy," enthuses Joyce Cummings, a retiree in Holland, Iowa. "He knows the problems of ordinary citizens."

That leaves Dean, who is retooling his campaign. The red-faced rebel is to be replaced by a genial, small-town doc who heals skinned knees, mends sickly budgets, and provides health care for state residents. "You're going to see a marked tonal shift, not a change in message," says Steve Grossman, Dean's national chairman. The former governor will stress his Vermont accomplishments, painting himself as a true reformer. It will be tricky for Dean to modulate his pitch without losing his core supporters. "Can Dean hold his base?" wonders Dick Bennett, an independent New Hampshire pollster, "or do the wheels fall off?"

Given the intensity of Dean's support, a revival is possible. And win or lose, the plain-spoken Vermonter can take some comfort from the fact that his attacks on weak-kneed Washington Democrats moved his rivals toward his agenda. What remains unknown is whether the brushfire that Dean ignited will help his candidacy -- or merely light the torch that another Democrat will carry next fall. By Lee Walczak in Washington, Richard S. Dunham in Des Moines, and Alexandra Starr in Manchester, N.H.


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