Jewish World Review Jan. 27, 2004 / 4 Shevat, 5764
Hearts and guts
NASHUA, N.H. This is how primaries are supposed to be: Knock-down and drag-out and the last man standing wins. They are supposed to tell us who has a glass chin and who can come back from a body blow. They are supposed to be testing grounds, crucibles, trials by combat. Like getting old, running for president is not for sissies.
"Part of running for president is just slogging on," John Kerry told me at the end of another long campaign day, sitting in a darkened bus that was hurtling through the snow-covered forests of New Hampshire. "Running for president is a tough, long, hard process. And before you get in it, you should know that part of it is a test. When the going gets hard, can you remain steady? People want to see that. That is the watchdog role that the people play. They want to see if you really can do it."
People have become an almost forgotten part of the campaign process. In the early months, there are only polls and pundits, strategy sessions and staff work. It is easy to forget voters actually exist.
But Iowa reminded everyone.
Howard Dean's fall from atop his front-runner perch was stunning. Having campaigned relentlessly in all 99 counties of Iowa for months, having spent millions of dollars, and having assembled what he said was a ground organization without peer or precedent, Dean won exactly two counties and tied in two others, coming in a poor third to John Kerry.
Candidates have lost Iowa and gone on not just to win the nomination, but also the presidency. But the Iowa loss made Dean look mortal. It reminded people that he could bleed, that he was not a god.
Moreover, the loss kicked two legs out from under the three-legged stool of the Dean campaign: the first leg was Dean's promise to bring new voters to the Democratic party. Far from bringing new voters to the party in Iowa, Dean couldn't even hold on to his old ones.
The second leg was the promise that Dean could turn out a vote and not just assemble bloggers and Internet contributors. Dean failed that test also, garnering only 18 percent of the vote to Kerry's 38 percent.
Dean's campaign stool still has one leg left: his message of opposition to George Bush. Dean's bashing of Bush earned him early notice, early money and early support. But in politics imitation is the sincerest form of thievery and Dean's message has been co-opted by the other candidates.
All of them are against the war to one degree or another and the entire Democratic pack is now relentlessly against George Bush and eager to tap into the rage that Democrats have felt ever since Florida was awarded to him by the Supreme Court in 2000.
In crowd after crowd, the plea from Democratic voters is the same: We just want somebody who can win. Electability trumps issues. So the Democrat who looks like he can actually beat Bush has a good chance of getting the nomination.
When Dean was sitting atop the polls and on a mountain of money a record $41 million raised the other candidates had a hard time getting their message into the media. Not any more. Now Dean is just another candidate, he has only one leg of his message left and the mad scramble is on.
It is possible to sit atop a one-legged stool, but one's balance has to be perfect and Dean's election night "I Have A Scream" speech in Iowa has placed his balance in question.
Day after day Dean has been bogged down trying to explain how he was just "trying to have a little fun" in Iowa. "I did it. I own it. I'm not perfect. It's done, I'm not a perfect person," an uncharacteristically subdued Dean said after Iowa. "My attitude is that it's done. And now we gotta get back to running for president." If he can.
Though he will not say so in public, Kerry believes that the dominoes will soon begin falling for him as he enters a gaggle of contests on Feb. 3. The key races that day may be South Carolina and Missouri and though Kerry is not particularly well-organized in either state, he believes early victories will give him the "waves under his bow" to sail through to the nomination.
But if Kerry becomes the new front-runner, won't the pack attack him like it attacked Dean? Won't the others try to bring him down? Yes, but Kerry believes Dean was unprepared for the attacks, that Vermont politics hardly prepared him the way the rough-and-tumble politics of Massachusetts have prepared Kerry.
"Dean spent two years in Iowa and I beat him there," Kerry said on his bus. "I won the colleges. I won the anti-war voters. I won people nobody thought I would win. I could tell there was a disconnect between the polls and reality. People were coming up to me and saying, 'I was for Howard Dean, but now I am for you.' "
At the beginning of his campaign Kerry felt showing off his grasp of the issues and the depth of his experience was the key to victory. He knows better now and believes that while his brain is important, his other organs are more useful.
"Now I am really talking from my heart and gut," he says. "That's what people want. They want something that is real."
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