After Iowa, it's a whole new ballgame for Democrats

January 21, 2004|By Jules Witcover

MANCHESTER, N.H. - Strictly speaking, three Democrats who ran in the Iowa caucuses got that much-discussed "ticket out" to compete in the New Hampshire primary six days from now - the Iowa winner, Sen. John Kerry; the runner-up, Sen. John Edwards; and the third-place finisher, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Mr. Kerry of Massachusetts and Mr. Edwards of North Carolina indisputably earned their tickets with their late surges in Iowa, beating the early expectations that they would be distant also-rans to Dr. Dean and the already departed Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt. But Dr. Dean has come into New Hampshire limping like a distance runner with a charley horse.

Going into caucus night in Iowa, the buzz was that Dr. Dean had slipped but might well win on the strength of a huge grass-roots organization blanketing the state.

It turned out that this volunteer army had a bigger job of selling its candidate than was generally realized. For all the money and manpower the Dean campaign was able to assert, the candidate failed to sell himself.

Dr. Dean's aggressive onslaught against President Bush on his war in Iraq, said to be popular with Iowa Democrats, came off as angry and often ill-tempered. His negative comments and TV commercials toward his opponents also sat poorly with Democrats in a good-government state such Iowa.

Dr. Dean capped his Iowa collapse with an extraordinary post-caucus rant in which he full-throatily and defiantly listed all the states in which he plans to campaign in the weeks ahead. If Iowans found that as a campaigner he was hard to like, the zany outburst did nothing at all to dispel that judgment.

That scene likely will be rerun often on television the rest of this week as his well-heeled organization scrambles to recover. It will fuel more discussion of the Dean temperament, especially under pressure, which will remain a political vulnerability hard to correct in those approaching primaries.

The "tickets out of Iowa" that Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards earned have projected them into the front ranks of the Democratic nomination fight as Democratic voters seek a candidate who can beat the incumbent Republican in November.

New Englander Kerry, once considered the front-runner in New Hampshire before the Dean blitz there last fall, is well positioned now to find the resources to permit him to go on well beyond the first-in-the-nation primary Tuesday.

As for Mr. Edwards, his sunny optimism and determined positive approach in Iowa, where Dr. Dean and Mr. Gephardt particularly engaged in bitterly negative exchanges on the stump and in TV ads, overcame reservations about his boyish looks and modest political experience. While Dr. Dean struggles with a likeability gap, Mr. Edwards has that quality to spare.

If there is one Democratic candidate beyond Dr. Dean who has reason to be concerned about the Kerry and Edwards surprises in Iowa, it has to be retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark. The Arkansas warrior was well on his way to overtaking the slumping Dr. Dean in New Hampshire when the two senators abruptly injected themselves into the Granite State competition.

Now, with the Democratic fight having moved to New Hampshire, the question is which of the candidates will use the primary to win "a ticket to South Carolina" and the six other states holding contests Feb. 3. Mr. Edwards obviously has his already. So has Mr. Kerry, and Dr. Dean, despite his Iowa meltdown, still has the money.

Another positive outcome of the Iowa caucuses was the statement it delivered that voters, in that state at least, much preferred Mr. Edwards' high-road politics to Dr. Dean's anger. We'll have to see, though, whether that lesson will carry over as the Democratic contest intensifies.

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

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