Fighting to finish second

December 15, 2003|By Jules Witcover

MANCHESTER, N.H. - Six weeks before the first-in-the-nation Democratic presidential primary here in New Hampshire, the competition in the nine-candidate field is thick and heavy - for second place.

Well before the first vote has been cast, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's wide lead in all the polls, in fund raising and in recruitment of volunteers has observers already looking to the race for runner-up for drama and significance in the contest.

That impression has been reinforced by two developments - Dr. Dean's endorsement by former Vice President Al Gore and last week's nationally televised debate, which proved to be an unwitting advertisement of Dr. Dean's strength.

Repeated questions harped on the endorsement and the wealth of political riches enjoyed by the Dean campaign, leaving the other eight candidates fighting in defense not only of their chances in the primary but of their very perseverance in running at all.

Dr. Dean may yet fall victim to some unforeseen event or gaffe on the stump that could shrink his 3-1 lead in the polls over Sen. John Kerry of neighboring Massachusetts. But unless Dr. Dean slips on some such campaign banana peel, the focus now seems destined to be on which of the other eight finishes second or otherwise beats expectations here, giving that candidate a lifeline.

Among those eight, Mr. Kerry has the most at stake in the fight for second place, while publicly insisting, as all of the candidates must do, that he remains in the thick of it to win New Hampshire.

As the early frontrunner here who pegged much of his campaign on an early boost in his own backyard, Mr. Kerry now finds himself struggling to hold on or suffer the embarrassment of being a certified also-ran. A week after the New Hampshire primary, the Democratic campaign moves to South Carolina and a string of Midwest and Western states, where his chances are rated much lower than in the East.

The spotlight on second place here offers an opportunity for one of at least four other candidates - Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark - to make a breakthrough in New Hampshire.

The remaining three - Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois - are far down in the polls, campaign treasury and general perception of electability. These three most enlivened the recent debate by irately defending their right to remain in the race, but that isn't expected to improve their chances much.

The apparent disintegration of Mr. Kerry's strength has caused considerable bafflement among veteran Democrats here. Unless he finishes second, the candidate who does may well be perceived and trumpeted in the press as the "real" winner in New Hampshire.

Just that scenario occurred in the Iowa precinct caucuses in 1984. The frontrunner, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, ran far ahead of the rest of the field, and the surprise runner-up, Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, with only 16.5 percent of the total vote, became the story, elevating him as Mr. Mondale's chief surviving opponent.

With much resultant publicity and a boost in fund raising, Mr. Hart parlayed that modest Iowa finish into a much bigger upset of Mr. Mondale in the New Hampshire primary, causing near-panic in the Mondale campaign. Mr. Hart split several subsequent primaries with Mr. Mondale but ran out of money and eventually lost out.

Mr. Lieberman, though also a New Englander, has failed so far to gain a toehold here in spite of high name recognition. Mr. Edwards has spent heavily in New Hampshire and has campaigned tirelessly, but the one candidate who is running closest to Mr. Kerry behind Dr. Dean in the polls is Mr. Clark.

After a late start, he could be the chief beneficiary of the Jan. 27 primary if he finishes even a weak second and, as Mr. Hart did in Iowa two decades ago, makes a mountain out of a molehill.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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