The news from Iowa brings us back to the Democratic race of a year ago. Kerry is once again the front-runner. Edwards draws attention as a fresh face with an outside chance. Gephardt is yesterday’s man. And Dean is on the way back to long-shot status. When the history of the campaign is written, I predict the Vermont governor’s unstoppable erosion will be dated from the moment Al Gore endorsed him. That man has a political black thumb.
More politics momentarily. But first, I want to set the scene at the Norsk Cross Country Ski Center in New London, where I spent the first half of the day with Slate’s Deputy Editor David Plotz. Norsk has a large network of groomed trails just 90 minutes from Boston, and Monday was a sunny holiday, so a lot of skiers were out, despite temperatures in the teens and a cutting wind.
Plotz has been here in New Hampshire for the past three months, on leave from Slate to write a book based on his “Seed” series, while his wife, Hanna Rosin, covers the primaries for the Washington Post “Style” section. The definition of a good sport, David drove all the way from Hampton on the seacoast to freeze his ass off keeping me company on the trails. As we propelled ourselves along the slick, grooved tracks, we talked politics.
David’s view of the race is that each party has an entrenched base of 43 percent or 45 percent that is largely unconvertible. The election will be decided by the 10 percent-15 percent of voters in the swayable middle. Given that reality, it would be insane for the Democrats to nominate Howard Dean, who is unlikely to win swing voters over with centrist positions or an easygoing personality, neither of which he has. Grasping this obvious problem, Dean’s advisers offer an alternate theory. They contend they can beat Bush by bringing new and disaffected voters into the process. But Plotz isn’t buying any of that; Democrats always talk about enlarging turnout and never really do.
The others still standing after Iowa—Clark, Edwards, Kerry, and Lieberman—all make plausible claims that they can capture the crucial votes in the middle. Clark’s argument is his military background. Having seen the general up here a few times, David confirms my impression of yesterday that Clark’s performances have improved to an amazing degree. But David sees Naomi Wolf-type issues. He thinks Clark is too pretty and feminine-looking to win. Herringboning up a very tall and cold hill, I told David he was crazy to think Clark couldn’t beat Bush because his eyelashes are too long. But I must admit, it’s a novel complaint.
Edwards’ appeal to swingers is his appealing personality and his Southern accent. He’s a bright and likable fellow, and like a few others at Slate, David appears to be rooting for him, if not quite openly. But the more security and foreign-policy issues become the focus of the race, the weaker a candidate Edwards will appear. Kerry’s appeal to the center, by contract, is his experience and competence on those same issues.
And Lieberman? Why hasn’t the candidate with the most centrist profile and record been more of a factor? After lunch at a restaurant with picture windows overlooking the trailhead and a soak in the tub back at the Centennial Inn, I headed off to the Red Blazer Restaurant in Concord to try to find out.
I’ll acknowledge a longstanding soft spot for Lieberman. I have this feeling partly because I’m closer to his views on most issues than I am to any of the other candidates’, but also because unlike most of my friends who find him cloying and sanctimonious, I’ve always found him witty and disarming. Remember his convention speech in 2000? Lieberman was the perfect tummler for Al Gore, who turned out to be the real drag on what should have been a sure-fire Democratic ticket.
Lieberman’s rallies are quite different from Clark’s, at least judging from today’s. The first and most obvious difference is turnout. Not many people came to Lieberman’s event, even though it’s a holiday and Lieberman’s the only candidate making public appearances in the state. There might have been 100 people, counting press and campaign workers.
The second is compulsory attendance. Today’s event in Concord was held at the headquarters of a liquor distributor called Horizon Beverage Co. With the boss making the introduction (“you can’t go wrong with wine and spirits”), even the Republican employees came to watch.
Then there’s the food. There was a bar and tables filled with crudités, cheese, fruit, fried chicken, tiny quiches, brownies, cookies, and coffee. This may be a Jewish thing, though Clark and Kerry are also partially Jewish and don’t have food at their rallies.
And dress. Like Clark, Lieberman wears a green sweater. But where Wes’ evergreen model strikes a flinty New England note, Joe’s is a pastel cashmere number that shouts, “I have been neutered!”
The fifth difference is energy. Simply stated, Lieberman doesn’t show any. He’s as passionate as your accountant, relating his criticisms of Bush in the tone of a grandfather rocking a baby to sleep.
This last, I think, is Lieberman’s big problem. Despite moving to New Hampshire for a stretch and subsisting on a diet of canned salmon and Clif bars, he just doesn’t come off as a serious competitor. At Norsk, he would have been one of the middle-aged New Englanders in knickers and a knit cap, trudging along in parallel tracks while skate-skiers in Spandex suits fly past. He’s gone nowhere, rhetorically, from 2000, still waxing sentimental about how his candidacy represents the American dream. But at this point, a Jew running for president no longer seems remarkable. Or, at least, Joe Lieberman running for president no longer seems remarkable.
I tried to remain attentive as Lieberman continued with the non-story of how his parents, who owned a liquor store in Connecticut, worked hard and sent him and his two sisters to college. But by that point, my mind was elsewhere—on the tracks winding through the birches, the cheek-chapping cold, and the prospect of another day’s adventure in the morning.