Democracy unscripted

January 21, 2004

WHAT A pleasure it always is to see conventional wisdom upended as it was by the Democrats in Iowa.

No offense intended to former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the long-time front-runner who finished a poor third in the party caucuses Monday. He may yet be the Democratic presidential nominee this fall. But it's so much healthier for his party and the process to make him sweat for it. Tackling an incumbent president with the money and political firepower of George W. Bush is no job for pampered, prickly prima donnas.

It's not clear exactly what suddenly pushed Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina past Dr. Dean; some combination of policy, personality and perceived electability. The senators struck more moderate stances on both the Iraq war and middle-class tax cuts than the Vermonter. Neither brought Dr. Dean's fire to the stump, but sounded positive themes while he grew darkly combustible - nearly to the point of self-immolation.

Also encouraging is that an impressive cadre of newcomers participated in this first official test of candidate sentiment of the election year. By refusing to be predictable, they helped open the process to far more Americans voting in later primaries. Now, perhaps even Marylanders - who don't go to the polls until March 3 - will have the chance for their voices to be heard.

That will be too late to rescue the faded hopes of Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, whose fourth-place finish in a state next-door to his Missouri home finally persuaded him to abandon his White House dreams. Once among his party's brightest stars in Congress, Mr. Gephardt's higher ambitions were crushed by bad luck, bad timing and an apparent lack of the essential spark that strikes home with voters on a grand scale.

His first White House bid in 1988 went nowhere after Iowa. This second try was launched on the ashes of three failed campaigns by Mr. Gephardt, a former majority leader, to win back control of the House from the Republicans who wrested it from him in 1995 - ending the Democrats' 40-year dominance. Not exactly a winning platform.

But Mr. Gephardt is a skilled and principled legislator who spoke movingly of wanting to make sure future generations would be able to benefit from the same government help that lifted him from working-class roots to the top ranks of American political life. His contribution will be missed.

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