Is this the best way to pick the Democratic candidate?

The Argument

In 10 days, the primary race probably will be decided -- yet the system is remarkably effective.


January 18, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff

The Democratic presidential contest starts in earnest tomorrow, when 100,000 hardy Iowans spend a frigid evening caucusing around their state. It's the first real voter test of 2004. By the time they're done, a few hours later, the Democratic presidential contest will practically be over.

Sorry you missed it. This has actually been one of the best national political races in a generation.

While most of the country found better things to do, the people of Iowa and New Hampshire have been busy choosing a presidential nominee for the rest of us. Howard Dean, the activists' heartthrob, boasted in last weekend's presidential debate in Des Moines (the town's third in eight days) that he "more or less lived in Iowa" the past two years. After visiting all 99 counties, he's almost certainly met most of the people who will back him tomorrow night, many more than once.

A week from Tuesday, New Hampshire takes its turn: whacking a large field of candidates down to, at most, two or three survivors. The endgame plays out in February's primaries. By March 2, when voters in California, New York, Ohio, Maryland and other states get to pick at the leftovers, the nomination will almost certainly have been decided.

Is this any way to elect a president? Maybe not. But good luck finding a better one.

For the first time, both Iowa and New Hampshire are voting in January. One of a slew of new campaign books, The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2004 (Rowman & Littlefield, 384 pages, $29.95), describes this year's compressed, "front-loaded" primary calendar as deeply flawed. It all but guarantees a "less deliberate, less rational, less flexible and more chaotic" contest, according to political scientists Andrew E. Busch and William G. Mayer, the volume's editor.

One chapter, "Only a Lunatic Would Do This Kind of Work," an ode to campaign reporting by David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, should be required reading at every school that purports to teach journalism. Many of the book's conclusions already look shaky, though. That's because Dean's insurgent campaign is busily rewriting the rules of the game, using the Internet to shatter fund-raising records and transform an outsider into the front-runner before the first votes are cast.

Walter Shapiro, a columnist for USA Today, was among the first to grasp the fact that 2004 would be a radically different presidential contest. In an attempt to breathe life into the nearly moribund campaign-book category, he tagged along as soon as the candidates started running.

He hit the road in the summer of 2002, long before the teeming press mob would show up, as it inevitably does, and ruin everything. His One-Car Caravan: On the Road With the 2004 Democrats Before America Tunes In, (PublicAffairs, 220 pages, $25) published last fall, astutely characterizes several '04 contenders. John Kerry "comes across as tense, defensive and curiously tone deaf." Dean is so disconnected from popular culture he doesn't realize his campaign slogan is borrowed from TV's West Wing.

Shapiro's biggest advantage, an early, inside look at the candidates, is also his weakness. You can skip all the stuff about Sen. Bob Graham. He's already dropped out of the race. And there's nothing at all about Wesley K. Clark, who entered late and could well be one of finalists, if not the nominee.

You won't learn much about Clark, either, from his own campaign book, Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire (PublicAffairs, 240 pages, $25). It's little more than a narrative history of the Iraq war with a stump speech tacked onto the end. The retired general is flying below radar, eluding scrutiny, while the press and politicians zero in on the front-running Dean.

A good source on the former Vermont governor is Howard Dean: A Citizen's Guide to the Man Who Would Be President (Steerforth Press, 230 pages, $12.95), by some home-state writers, mostly reporters for the Rutland Herald and Times-Argus. They show how the Dean that the rest of the country is just getting to know -- an impulsive, polarizing figure -- acted that way in Vermont, where he compiled a record surprisingly at odds with his state's reputation as a left-wing haven for aging hippies.

Dean's autobiographical Winning Back America (Simon & Schuster, 192 pages, $11.95), every bit as calculating as a campaign book must be, is the source for much of the information now being recirculated by other writers about his life and personality.

He still has a $125 suit he bought at JCPenney in 1987, writes the candidate, a tightfisted millionaire who grew up rich on Park Avenue in New York. He also tells how, upon hearing the news that a heart attack had unexpectedly felled Vermont's governor, making him the new governor, "I then started to hyperventilate."

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