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Jewish World Review Feb. 20, 2004 / 28 Shevat, 5764

Michael Barone

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After Wisconsin |
It's not over, after all. John Edwards's strong second-place finish to John Kerry in Wisconsin keeps him in the race as a credible candidate, even as Howard Dean flies off to Burlington, Vt., and his place in political history. In previous primaries, Edwards had only carried South Carolina and southern-accented counties in other states–Oklahoma, Virginia, Tennessee. He had only won non-southern-accented constituencies in the Iowa caucuses, where he had months to expose caucusgoers to his entrancing in-the-room-with-you set speech.

But Wisconsin has no southern-accented counties. And Edwards had only a week or so to spend with Wisconsin voters and was seen in-the-room by only a tiny percentage of them. Yet he mostly carried the ring of suburban counties around Milwaukee and won Fond du Lac County, where his trade message apparently hit home in a county whose major employer, Mercury Marine, just sent several hundred jobs to Mexico.

One reason Edwards did so well: Sunday night's debate in Milwaukee. Kerry was verbose and soporific and unpersuasive as he tried to have it both ways on issues like Iraq and trade. Here is one exchange:

CRAIG GILBERT, Milwaukee Sentinel: Let me turn to you, Senator Kerry, because you said your vote wasn't a vote for what the president ultimately did. But you did vote to give him the authority, so do you feel any degree, any degree of responsibility for the war and its costs and casualties?

KERRY: This is one of the reasons why I am so intent on beating George Bush and why I believe I will beat George Bush, because one of the lessons that I learned–when I was an instrument of American foreign policy, I was that cutting-edge instrument. I carried that M-16. I know what it's like to try to choose between friend and foe in a foreign country when you're carrying out the policy of your nation. And I know what it's like when you lose the consent and the legitimacy of that war. And that is why I said specifically on the floor of the Senate that what I was voting for was the process the president promised. There was a right way to do this and there was a wrong way to do it. And the president chose the wrong way because he turned his back on his own pledge to build a legitimate international coalition, to exhaust the remedies of the United Nations in the inspections, and to go to war as a matter of last resort. Last resort means something to me. Obviously, it doesn't mean something to this president. I think it means something to the American people. And the great burden of the commander in chief is to be able to look into the eyes of any parent or loved one and say to them, "I did everything in my power to prevent the loss of your son and daughter, but we had to do what we had to do because of the imminency of the threat and the nature of our security." I don't think the president passes that test.

GILBERT: But what about you? I mean, let me repeat the question. Do you have any degree of responsibility having voted to give him the authority to go to war?

KERRY: The president had the authority to do what he was going to do without the vote of the United States Congress. President Clinton went to Kosovo without the Congress. President Clinton went to Haiti without the Congress. That's why we have a War Powers Act. What we did was vote with one voice of the United States Congress for a process. And remember, until the Congress asserted itself, this president wasn't intending to go to the United Nations. In fact, it was Jim Baker and Brent Scowcroft and others and the Congress who got him to agree to a specific process. The process was to build a legitimate international coalition, go through the inspections process, and go to war as a last resort. He didn't do it. My regret is not the vote. It was appropriate to stand up to Saddam Hussein. There was a right way to do it, a wrong way to do it. My regret is this president chose the wrong way, rushed to war, is now spending billions of American taxpayers' dollars that we didn't need to spend this way had he built a legitimate coalition, and has put our troops at greater risk.

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GILBERT: You cast the same vote, Senator Edwards; is that the way you see it?

EDWARDS: That's the longest answer I ever heard to a "yes" or "no" question. The answer to your question is of course. We all accept responsibility for what we did. I did what I believed was right. I took it very, very seriously.

Edwards's quick response may have won him many votes then and there. With good humor he pointed up Kerry's pomposity and engaged in an effective bit of negative campaigning that didn't look negative at all. That one response may have earned him a ticket to the March 2 and March 9 contests.

Kerry backers are saying that he has lost his edge and is not campaigning as well as he was between mid-January in Iowa up through the February 10 contests in Virginia and Tennessee. But Kerry actually hasn't been campaigning all that well. As Will Saletan pointed out in Slate, the Kerry events where he received thunderous applause consisted mostly of speeches by others–Ted Kennedy, Teresa Heinz Kerry and her son Chris Heinz, Dick Gephardt, various local notables. Kerry himself recited a long list of denunciations of George W. Bush but, while saying that he was campaigning on jobs and healthcare and education, he actually said very little about what he would do on them. He profited because many Democratic primary voters wanted most of all to defeat Bush and concluded that Kerry, with his heroic record in Vietnam, was the Democrat best positioned to do that. His candidacy will be in serious trouble if Democratic primary voters come to believe that Edwards has a better chance against Bush. That case, as Edwards noted on primary night, had been made by the Milwaukee Sentinel in its editorial endorsing Edwards.

Another factor that may have hurt Kerry were the reports, first aired by the Drudge Report on Thursday, February 12, that news organizations were investigating charges that Kerry had an extramarital affair with a young woman. This story was not much aired in the conventional press except for Kerry's denial on "Imus in the Morning" on Friday and the statements issued by the woman and her parents (perhaps with drafting help from Kerry operatives?) on Sunday. But it was aired widely in the blogosphere, and it may have had some effect on the results. Surely most Democrats (and most Republicans, for that matter) don't want to go through another controversy over presidential adultery. Wisconsin may have been a test of the comparative strength of Old Media and the blogosphere. The result suggests that the blogosphere may have more influence than ever before.

Finally, Wisconsin does not have party registration, and the Edison/Mitofsky exit poll showed that Democratic primary voters who self-identify as independents and Republicans gave Edwards big margins over Kerry–much as self-identified independents and Democrats preferred John McCain to George W. Bush in 2000. But most of the states that vote in the big contests to come have party registration, and Edwards stands to win fewer such votes there.

What's next? Edwards holds a fundraiser in New York today. His pitch to the money people will go something like this:

"I have a chance now to win. I can maybe do something in the three small western contests on February 24, in Utah, Idaho, and Hawaii. In heavily Republican Utah and Idaho I can argue that I am a stronger general election candidate than Kerry. You can fit the Democrats in those states into a few rooms, and my best medium is in-the-room-with-you. So I might score well in the primaries there. As for the Hawaii caucuses, the Democratic party there is tightly controlled by a group of insiders. No one will care much who they come out for.

"Then we get to the 10 contests on March 2. Kerry will be the favorite in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, and Vermont may still go for Howard Dean. But no one will expect me to win any of these. Then you have Georgia, which by the way is the 10th-largest state and very southern, and Maryland, which has a lot of southern-accented voters who are still registered Democrats. You have Ohio, which has southern-accented counties south of the old National Road, and industrial cities where my emphasis on trade–and Kerry's votes for NAFTA and other free-trade measures–could score. You have the Minnesota caucuses, and I've demonstrated I can run a strong second in next-door Iowa and Wisconsin.

"I will pass quickly over the caucus in American Samoa on March 8. In 2000, the turnout was 25 people.

"And you have California and New York. I've already been doing some campaigning in California, and I'll do more. After the rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger, L.A. and Bay Area TV stations are actually covering politics again, as they haven't since Jerry Brown left the governorship. And in New York, TV and the tabloids cover politics closely. Democrats there as elsewhere want to get rid of George W. Bush, and I'll have a chance to make my case over free media.

"All I need," he will say, "is enough money to get around the country and to put on a token amount of media. Kerry won't be able to make a saturation buy: The March 2 contests are in states with one third of the nation's population, including many of the nation's largest media markets–New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, Baltimore, Atlanta, Cleveland. In California alone it costs $1 million for a week's saturation TV ads (1,000 gross rating points). I just need enough to show that I'm a real competitor.

"Then if I can win in several states–let's say Georgia and Maryland and Ohio and either California or New York–I'm in excellent shape for March 9 a week later. The four primaries then are all in the South–Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. Once again, if you keep me minimally funded, I won't be massively outbought on TV; Texas and Florida are the No. 2 and 4 states in population. I could go four for four, and be within close range of Kerry in delegates.

"The contests over the next four weeks are all in small states–Kansas, Wyoming, Alaska, Guam–with one exception: Illinois. And in the procession of party establishment figures endorsing Kerry, you will note the conspicuous exception of Mayor Richard M. Daley. Unlike his father, Daley doesn't control a machine. But he is listened to. In 1992 he was quietly helpful to Bill Clinton, who pretty much sewed up the nomination in Illinois. He and other Illinois Democrats are mostly concerned about the simultaneous primary contests for U.S. senator and for important positions like Cook County Assessor. With his benevolent neutrality I could win. And there are southern-accented Democratic votes in southern Downstate Illinois."

It's not an implausible scenario. Edwards has figured out, as has Bush's campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, that Kerry has a grave weakness: trying to please everyone, trying to be on all sides of an issue. And Edwards has figured out a good-humored way to exploit that weakness. He can campaign as the straight-talking, tough-on-trade, anti-lobbyist candidate–an obvious contrast in each case with Kerry.

What about Kerry? On primary night his spokesman Tad Devine indicated that he will stick to his strategy of contesting every primary and caucus. But he declined to commit Kerry to debating Edwards one on one. All of which makes sense for him. He has far more delegates than Edwards and more endorsements and in-place organization in subsequent states. He has, after all, won all but two of the contests; Edwards has won only one. Yet there is, as writers from the New Republic have argued, something of a bubble phenomenon to the Kerry candidacy. Democrats have been voting for him because they think others will vote for him–not because they have any great commitment to him themselves. But our opinion of others' opinions can change very rapidly. Kerry's managers have to hope that doesn't happen to Democrats' opinion about whether their candidate or Edwards can best win votes against Bush in the general election. There are no guarantees here.

The fact is that both candidates' arguments that they have a good chance to beat Bush are weak. Kerry argues that his record as a war hero will neutralize his own shifting record on foreign policy–his claim that he opposed the Gulf War resolution because he wanted to see Saddam Hussein ousted from Kuwait and that he voted for the Iraq war resolution because he didn't want to see George W. Bush act to oust Saddam from Iraq. Maybe; maybe not. War hero George McGovern didn't beat Richard Nixon in 1972; war hero John McCain didn't beat George W. Bush in 2000. Edwards argues that "the South is my back yard, not George Bush's back yard." But turnout figures don't back him up. South Carolina, the one state Edwards has won, does not have party registration; turnout in primaries is an index of enthusiasm relevant to the general election. On February 3, 290,000 South Carolinians voted in the Democratic primary Edwards won. In 2000, in the primary George W. Bush won, 573,000 South Carolinians voted in the Republican primary Bush won. Those who voted in the South Carolina Democratic primary this year were 72 percent against the Iraq war–hardly typical of the November South Carolina electorate.

Going in to Wisconsin, it looked as if the result would be the nomination of an un-roughed-up Kerry. Now it looks as if the result will be the nomination either of a somewhat roughed-up Kerry or of Edwards. And the better Edwards does, the greater incentive Kerry will have to rough him up.

At the least it means that Kerry and Edwards will remain a few more weeks in the cocoon of the Democratic primaries, where statements and claims and promises that will seem untenable in the general election context seem entirely plausible and even taken for granted, because they are not challenged by the other candidates or by just about anyone in the media. Kerry and Edwards will be tested, and in some ways the eventual nominee–probably Kerry, possibly Edwards–will be the stronger for it. But he also may be the weaker for the contest.

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Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2004, Michael Barone