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Jewish World Review Feb. 3, 2004 / 11 Shevat, 5764

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Consumer Reports


Now, the election fun begins 10 minutes with Charlie Cook


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Last time we talked with Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of "The Cook Political Report" (cookpolitical.com), it was January 2003, and six Democrats already were running for the right to take on George W. Bush this fall.

Cook, a regular guest on the TV news and chat shows, is recognized as one of the most astute and impartial analysts in politics. With South Carolina and six other primaries or caucuses in far-flung places such as Missouri, Arizona and Oklahoma bearing down on us, I talked to Cook by telephone on Thursday from his offices in Washington:

Q: Does John Edwards have enough to take South Carolina?

A: I think he has an inside track there. But this campaign has been so unpredictable, so volatile, I don't know why it should suddenly become predictable. Certainly, he would seem to have the inside track. There's plausibility there with Gen. (Wesley) Clark. And Sen. Kerry comes out of Iowa and New Hampshire with some momentum, so I don't think it's a done deal for (Sen. John) Edwards. Certainly if Edwards loses South Carolina, the rationale for his candidacy just evaporates.

Q: Is South Carolina really the most important of all these states? Basically that's all you hear on TV.

A: Having said for months that I thought South Carolina was the most important, in my mind I (now) think Missouri is probably the most important. First of all, it's the biggest. It's got the most delegates. If you think about it, Missouri is pretty much a microcosm of the country. Since 1900, the only time they've gone for the loser was 1956. So it's the biggest state and arguably the most representative of the country. I would say Missouri, Arizona and then South Carolina, conceding that this is different from what I had been saying.

Q: What does Kerry have to do in South Carolina and elsewhere to sustain his momentum?

A: What I'm looking for on Feb. 3 is, "Can John Kerry win two states of some size on that day — specifically Missouri and Arizona?" Those are the two biggest blocks of delegates up on that date. And secondly, if he wins those two, how many second places does he pull in?

I see Kerry as trying to replicate the (Michael) Dukakis "Super Tuesday" strategy, where you're going in to a group of states that aren't naturally very friendly, but you do have a lot of momentum. And you pick off a couple that you can win, and then you try to come in second everywhere else.

We're now transitioning into the period of the campaign that is really more about delegates than winning states. Iowa and New Hampshire are hugely important symbolically, but (there) really aren't many delegates.

Keep in mind that on the Democratic side, as opposed to the Republican, there are no winner-take-all primaries. It's proportional representation on a congressional district basis, and usually there's a bonus number of delegates for whoever wins the whole state. So a campaign can cherry-pick one or two or three congressional districts in the state and win or come in second in those districts and pick up a bunch of delegates, even though they are not winning or coming in second ....

Let's say Kerry wins Missouri and Arizona and comes in a few seconds, and somebody else wins here, somebody else wins there, but nobody else is consolidating their position to being the alternative to Kerry, then I think John Kerry is a long way towards cementing the nomination.

Q: Is Dean still a serious contender?

A: We don't know. There is not an obvious place for Dean to do really well — to win a state. There are probably some districts here or there he might be able to pick off, but Feb. 3 is not likely to be a very good day for Howard Dean. He's got some states further down the calendar, where if he can stay alive, if he can stay viable, he can win. But for the most part they are not on Feb. 3.

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There's nothing wrong with the Dean campaign operation. ... With Dean, what went wrong was, No. 1, the spotlight on the war started dissipating. And even though casualties haven't really gone down, the news coverage of the war certainly has gone down precipitously. That took a lot of wind out of Howard Dean's sails.

Q: Do Gen. Clark or Edwards have a chance to pull of any surprises in those six other states on Tuesday or in Michigan or Washington the week after?

A: What I'd watch for is, can Edwards do South Carolina and Oklahoma? I don't have a feel for North Dakota or New Mexico. Can Clark win some place?

Q: Is this pretty much a two-way race between Kerry and Dean?

A: Not yet. If Kerry doesn't win any place next week, then I don't think he's the clear front-runner. And until John Edwards comes in first somewhere, I don't think you can say he's clearly in second place. Edwards has a few delegates, but not many. I think we're a week away from being able to make grand pronouncements about who's the odds-on favorite or who has emerged as the primary alternative.

Q: How is Bush doing in terms of job approval and the economy?

A: We don't have clear fix right now for where he is. Ultimately, if you're going to ask, "Is George Bush going to be re-elected or not?" I'd say, No. 1, look at Iraq. No. 2, look at the economy — and the economy defined not just as the stock market, not just GDP-growth rate.

I'd look at the unemployment rate, the number of jobs and the net job growth or loss since January of 2001. Finally, I'd look at the Democratic nominee. I think that's the third most-important factor. Then, at the end of the summer, we can throw in the running mate for good measure. ...

Looking at this election, I think the president is in worse shape now in Ohio than he was four years ago, and he just barely won it then. I look around the battle ground, and I think this election is still very much in play.

Q: Of all these guys now, who do you think would give President Bush the best run for his money?

A: Stipulating that as the third-most important factor, after Iraq and after the economy, it's hard to say. None of these guys is the complete package. With Kerry you've got a good resume, plenty of experience, a good campaign team, a decent message. He kind of looks presidential.

But the downside is, he is somewhat aloof. He doesn't connect well with people. And then, finally, he's a Massachusetts Democrat, and there's a presumption on the part of a lot of voters that a Massachusetts Democrat is a liberal. Until proven otherwise, they tend to think that.

You look at John Edwards. I think he is clearly the most talented campaigner out there. Some people have said that he is as good or a better natural campaigner than Bill Clinton. But his resume, experience and particularly his accomplishments are on the thin side. ...

I'm not sure Edwards could carry his home state of North Carolina.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald