The Democrats, Scrambled

Climb on the roller coaster, the ride has just begun

The Democrats, Scrambled
Illustration By Doug Potter

Whatever else happens this week, the Democratic primary campaign is far from over.

That precious item of conventional wisdom is offered in the immediate wake of a New Hampshire primary which, like the Iowa caucuses before it, demonstrated that there remain four viable Democratic candidates – John Kerry (39%), Howard Dean (26%), Wesley Clark (12%), and John Edwards (12%) – and that it's far too early to tell much more about the overall race.

With any luck, Joe Lieberman's 9% will convince him (or his backers) that his "I'm more Bush than Bush" mantra is a great slogan – for the other party. It is hard to imagine Lieberman's leftovers carrying him very far into next week's much less familiar territory: Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina. Well, maybe he'll do OK in Delaware. For that matter, Kerry and Dean will have to prove they are more than regional candidates, and that the special circumstances of the caucuses and then New England can be extended beyond those narrow boundaries.

Among the major candidates' Texas supporters last week – post-Iowa, pre-New Hampshire – the only consensus appeared to be that the daily headlines and sound bites are far too volatile to be trusted. As the ritual of public flagellation of the former front-runner was delivered to Dean – in the wake of his "unpresidential" concession speech in Iowa – Dean's Texas campaign director, former state Rep. Glen Maxey of Austin, remained annoyed at the exaggerated media reaction. "I was in the room [when Dean spoke] with about 3,000 other people," Maxey recalled, "and we couldn't even hear the so-called 'scream' over all the cheering. Then I hear that the Drudge Report is calling Dean hysterical, and within 24 hours there's a media frenzy around this 15-second sound bite."

Maxey said that whatever it looked like on TV, for the campaign crowd it was "inspirational." The trouble is, of course, that for most voters the TV is the campaign, and Maxey anticipated, "If the media doesn't blow him out in New Hampshire, the race remains wide open."

The day after New Hampshire, that still looks to be true.

South Toward Home

No one else is as active as the Deaniacs yet in Texas. The state primary was postponed until March 9 (yet another byproduct of GOP re-redistricting), so barring an extraordinary dogfight through February, and on Super Tuesday on March 2 (10 primaries from Vermont to California), it is unlikely Texas Democrats will have a great deal of say in choosing their party's nominee. That distresses local Kerry supporter and former Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes, dismayed at the disproportionately large influence of Iowa and New Hampshire, even though his man is now the designated front-runner. "No one has a crystal ball," said Barnes, "but I think all the Democratic candidates – Kerry, Dean, Clark, Edwards, Lieberman – are attractive, and that the primary process is working. I just think Kerry is the most qualified person to be president since the days of Kennedy and LBJ. On the economy, domestic issues, foreign policy – the breadth of his experience means that he would arrive in Washington in total command of the office."

Barnes says that money, time, and incumbency lend great advantages to President Bush – "He'll have $200 million, and not have to spend any of it until summertime" – but adds, "The country is very divided now, and it's all about timing. ... The Democrat will have to win at least one Southern state – if Gore had won Arkansas or Tennessee, that would have done it. The South cannot be neglected."

Clark and Edwards, of course, are also making that Southern calculation, and if either surges next week in that Delaware-to-Arizona arc, it could become a very different ball game.

Just Keep Talking

Former Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, who had been supporting Dick Gephardt, says he hasn't picked a new favorite yet, but along with Ben Barnes he likes what he sees. "Here's my problem," says Mauro. "I think Dean's organizing and outreach to new voters has been really good for the party; John Edwards has the best message – the 'Two Americas' – so far; Clark's got a terrific résumé; and John Kerry's been a friend of mine for many, many years. But I also think everybody has to take a deep breath – when the media says, 'Kerry's the leading candidate,' what that really means is, he's the leading New England candidate. Those people have been watching Kerry on television all their lives – who do you think they'll vote for?"

Mauro believes that if the primary process is allowed to play out naturally, the campaign could well last throughout the spring, and it's too soon to tell what will happen. "Coming out of Iowa, the so-called experts want to say, 'It's Kerry and Edwards' – but Dean has the most resources, and that isn't going to go away. The press may say it's over, but it ain't over – especially since the Democratic primaries distribute delegates proportionally, not winner-take-all." The problem, says Mauro, is that national media coverage can drive (or undermine) fundraising, so that an otherwise viable campaign can be hamstrung or destroyed by a media consensus of defeat. That looked like it might happen to Dean, after Iowa, but New Hampshire would seem to have provided him at least a second wind.

Mauro also rejects the notion that a prolonged primary campaign without a designated Democrat can only help President Bush. "Why do you think the Republicans were turning up in Iowa? They wanted to get some attention for their guy. So we've got effectively a three-month primary – it'll all be over by the end of March, and even Texas can have an impact. And all that time the TV and the newspapers are going to be talking about the Democrats. If we can keep from tearing each other down, all that can do is help us.

"And if we keep talking about jobs and the war, we'll do OK." end story

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Election 2004, John Kerry, Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, Glen Maxey, Ben Barnes, Garry Mauro

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