Ballot Box

Post-Game Pre-Game

Iowa’s top three spin the fight in New Hampshire.

10:20 a.m. PT: One of the most important things to watch after a big primary or caucus is what the candidates say on the morning TV shows. Today, Kerry, Edwards, and Dean made the network rounds. Here’s how they’re revamping their messages for New Hampshire.


1. Experience in foreign and domestic policy. In New Hampshire, Kerry faces a governor with no significant foreign policy experience, a former general with no significant domestic policy experience, and a first-term senator with some, but not much, of both. (This leaves out Joe Lieberman, who hasn’t yet become a threat.) Of those four, Kerry says he’s the only one with significant experience in both departments. Some of his pet phrases seem to aim at Dean (“safer and stronger,” “judgment and temperament,” “steady, trusted hand”). Others seem to aim at Clark (we need a president who “knows how to move the Congress”). Others seem to aim at Edwards (“ready to be president”). Kerry isn’t afraid to state his political age: “35 years of experience.”

2. Proven fighter. Kerry has adopted some of Dean’s rhetoric, promising to “fight” and “take on powerful interests.” He turns Dean’s argument on its head. Dean says encrusted Washington Democrats are part of the problem. Kerry argues that unlike candidates who complain about Washington special interests from afar, he’s been in the trenches fighting those interests (on the environment, prescription drugs, and Medicare). This is a tricky argument to pull off. It will take more skill than Kerry has shown so far, even in victory.

3. It isn’t about me. Kerry’s message about his readiness to be president is a return to the theme he stressed early last year. The reason that theme failed was that Kerry presented it in a self-absorbed, self-satisfied way. He sat in debates, looking confidently presidential while Dean talked about real issues and ate Kerry’s lunch. What Kerry seems to have learned from Iowa and from Edwards is to focus more on real people and their problems. This morning he brushed off invitations to claim “vindication” in Iowa. Instead, he shifted the conversation to “the concerns of real people.”

4. Gut check. In several interviews, Kerry said Iowans had checked his “gut” and “character” and had “looked in my eyes.” This sounds to me like a shot at Clark for ducking Iowa. The message seems to be that while both men have shown military courage, only one has shown political courage.

5. Democrats don’t need the South. On Good Morning America, Kerry was asked about Edwards’ argument that the Democratic nominee must be able to win in the South. Kerry said this wasn’t true because Al Gore could have won in 2000 just by picking up New Hampshire, West Virginia, or Ohio. A week from now, Kerry will sorely regret this comment, as Clark, Edwards, or both pummel him with it in South Carolina.


1. Positive, hopeful, optimistic, uplifting. Blah, blah, blah. I’m one of the cynical pundits who finds this message fake and meaningless. But evidently it catapulted Edwards from single digits in Iowa to 32 percent. That’s why he’s a top-tier presidential candidate, and I’m sitting behind a computer.

2. It isn’t about me. This is the theme Kerry is copying. It was Clinton’s central message, allowing him to survive impeachment (“I just get up every day and work hard for you”) because it made his opponents’ attacks on him look like distractions from the job of helping people. Edwards applied the same lesson to Iowa with great effect. His rivals’ attacks on each other, he argued, suggested to Iowans that those candidates “weren’t listening to the voters.” Edwards is so good at this shtick, Harry Smith of CBS had to plead with him this morning, “But I need you to talk about yourself for a second.”

3. I can win everywhere. The Southern part of this message is as obvious as Edwards’ accent. What’s less obvious is the way he turns the message on fellow Southerner Clark. By describing his Iowa showing as proof that he can compete anywhere, Edwards implies that Clark forfeited his claim to being a national candidate by ducking Iowa. Edwards also tries to elevate himself above Clark by saying, “I have a proven record of being able to win in a very tough place.” That boast looks pretty weak next to other presidential candidates who have won several elections. It works against Clark because Clark hasn’t won any yet. But a Clark victory in South Carolina or Oklahoma would put it to rest.

4. I’m from the real world. Officially, this message targets Bush. According to Edwards, Bush has been “removed” from real people and encounters only people who are admitted to “ticketed events,” whereas Edwards has been “out in the real world … listening to voters’ concerns.” Unofficially, the message targets Kerry, too. On Good Morning America, Edwards said, “The question is whether [real] change can be brought by somebody who spent most of their life in politics and in Washington or … somebody who spent most of their life in the real world.” It’s worth noting that in the waning days of Iowa, when Kerry made a crack about Edwards’ youth, Edwards replied with a dig at Kerry’s comfortable upbringing.

5. Foreign policy experience. This is the hard question Edwards can expect from now on. Here’s how he answered it on the Today show: “I’m on the Senate Intelligence Committee … I investigated Sept. 11th, helped write the laws that keep this country safe without taking away our rights and liberties; I’ve been in all the hot spots of the world, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Middle East, Europe; met with leaders in that part of the world; met with our own security operations in that part of the world; have a clear view of what America needs to do around the world.” I like Edwards, but this still sounds like a bunch of junkets and committee assignments.

6. Domestic policy experience. Edwards gives two answers to this question. The first, that he has “two decades of real-world experience fighting the battles” on key issues, is horribly lame. Edwards was a plaintiff’s attorney, not a lawmaker or even a policy advocate. His second answer is better: He has laid out “specific ideas” for creating jobs, expanding health care, and solving other problems. Edwards does have a 60-page plan  spelling out his ideas. It’ll be interesting to see whether its detail overcomes doubts about his readiness.


1. Keep fighting. Every interviewer today asked Dean whether he had learned anything from his tumble in Iowa. His answer was no. “All I can do is fight. That’s all I know how to do, is stand up for what I believe in,” he said on Good Morning America. On Today, Dean likened himself to Harry Truman, who “said what he thought … and he didn’t look at the polls first.” Maybe New Hampshire voters will respect Dean for sticking to his guns. Or maybe, like Iowans, they’ll decide that his guns are the problem, in which case Dean is sealing his fate by spurning humility.

2. Fun. This is Dean’s chief character flaw. His comments this morning underscored it. Last night he gave a furious non-concession speech in which he railed, snarled, contorted his face, and pledged to take his fight to the home states of his opponents. On CBS, Dean explained the speech this way: “You’ve got to have a little fun in this business.” On ABC, he said of the Iowa supporters to whom he had been speaking: “I thought I owed them a little bit of fun. We’re going to have some fun in this race. We’re going to fight back.” I used to worry about Dean because his idea of fun might scare other people. Now I worry because it scares me, too.

3. Washington Democrats. In his dark-horse days, Dean offered a clear critique of Democratic big shots. Then the big shots climbed onto his bandwagon, and the message became confusing. Dean was still trying to argue this morning that he lost Iowa because the establishment didn’t want to let him “into the Washington club.” But at the same time, he noted that he “had a lot of support from folks both inside the Beltway” as well as outside. Can Dean win New Hampshire with big shots at his side?

4. Gubernatorial record. Dean does seem to have learned one thing from his spanking in Iowa. He’s distinguishing himself from Washington Democrats less on the basis of what they’ve done wrong and more on the basis of what he’s done right. In every interview this morning, he stressed that he was the only candidate who had balanced budgets and delivered health care.

5. Good people. This is Dean’s concession to niceness. He now routinely begins his critiques with, “These folks in Washington are good people, but …” The sentence sometimes ends with “they’ve been on committees for 18 years” or “they haven’t balanced budgets,” but Dean always stipulates that they’re good people. Etiquette? From Dean? Goodness.

Monday, Jan. 19, 2004

8:50 p.m. PT: Let’s cut through the TV chatter and get to the main lessons and implications of the evening:

1. The unfavorables told all. If you watched Zogby or other tracking polls over the past week, the most striking gap was between the favorables of Kerry and Edwards and the favorables of Dean and Gephardt. (Favorables are the numbers showing how many voters have a favorable opinion of the candidate and how many have an unfavorable opinion.) Kerry’s and Edwards’ unfavorables—the percentage of respondents saying they had an unfavorable opinion of each of those candidates—hovered around 10 percent. Gephardt’s number was around 20, and Dean’s was around 30. (Evidently Dean beat Gephardt because he had enough commitment from some supporters to cancel out the loss of others.) Comments from caucusgoers tonight and over the past week confirm that Iowa wasn’t so much won by Kerry and Edwards tonight as it was lost by Dean and Gephardt. Moral: In a big field, belligerence doesn’t pay. While you’re beating up the guy on your left, the guy on your right is coasting to victory.

2. War anger was vented. Tonight’s entrance polls indicate that Kerry won more support from caucusgoers who opposed the Iraq war than Dean did, and that Edwards won as many of those folks as Dean did. That jibes with comments from Iowans over the past week and tonight, to the effect that they’ve forgiven the candidates who voted for the war resolution, or at least that they’ve moved on to other issues. Dean’s issue, the war, surged so early in the process that it petered out before the caucuses. It’s hard to keep people angry that long. Two months ago, I likened Kerry’s “real deal” pitch to that of a good prospective husband competing with a hotheaded rogue: “Kerry isn’t pretending to be the guy who makes your heart race. He’s saying, go ahead and have your fling, but when it’s time to marry, you know who to count on.” A couple of weeks later, I was amused to hear that Kerry supporters were handing out paraphernalia with the slogan, “Dated Dean, Married Kerry.” From everything Iowans are saying tonight, it looks like they fled the hothead for Mr. Reliable.

3. Dean was Gored. Want to know how Al Gore lost the presidency in October 2000? You just saw it: a relentless focus on one candidate’s record and comments. That’s understandable (and I participated in it), because Dean seemed to be on his way to the nomination, just as Gore seemed to be on his way to the presidency in October 2000. You always scrutinize most carefully the person who, barring intervention, is likely to win. The catch is that you’re the intervention. Some of the criticism of Dean was way over the line. (The next pundit who scolds Dean’s wife for not campaigning should have to sleep on the couch for a year.) But some of it was well-earned by Dean. Moral: When the camera’s on you, shape up.

4. The establishment failed. Dean went around all year attacking the Washington Democratic establishment. He said it was impotent and had to be thrown aside. I couldn’t figure out who the establishment was, till it started lining up behind Dean: Gore, Bill Bradley, Tom Harkin, Jimmy Carter … Dean even ended up with more congressional endorsements than Gephardt, who led the House Democrats for more than a decade. Dean’s answer to every gaffe or unpleasant revelation was to trot out another endorsement from the establishment. But he was right: The establishment proved impotent, and tonight it was thrown aside.

5. The Gephardt void. On caucus night, pundits tend to focus on who survived. But looking ahead, it’s arguably more important who didn’t. Tonight’s dead candidate is Gephardt. I haven’t had a chance to examine closely which candidate is the second choice of Gephardt supporters in New Hampshire and South Carolina, but in terms of the basic dynamics of the race, it looks to me like Edwards will be the principal beneficiary. Gephardt and Edwards were the two major candidates from working-class families. Gephardt took the hardest line against lax trade agreements; Edwards took the next-hardest line. Gephardt was one of the three major candidates from the south or Midwest; Edwards and Clark are the others. My gut says the trade issue will make it hard for Clark, a free-trader, to get Gephardt’s voters in South Carolina. Dean might have been the logical repository for much of Gephardt’s union support, but if you’re a union boss watching tonight’s returns, Dean isn’t looking so hot. Maybe you think about Kerry, but he’s a free-trader, too, and not exactly a natural at relating to working folks.

6. Kerry-Edwards. The other significant thing for Edwards is that the winner tonight was Kerry, not Dean. Dean’s logical running mate was Clark: the New England domestic policy expert and national security rookie, paired with the Arkansas national security expert and domestic policy rookie. Kerry could go with Clark, too. But Kerry doesn’t have to, because he’s already got the national security credentials as well as the domestic policy expertise. If the hole in Dean’s doughnut, as he once called it, was military experience, the hole in Kerry’s doughnut is vitality and a common touch, plus regional appeal in the South or Midwest. I could see a Kerry-Clark ticket (or the reverse), but a Kerry-Edwards ticket (or the reverse) is now conceivable. A Dean-Edwards ticket wasn’t.

If I’m Clark in New Hampshire, my task just got more complicated. I’m not just fighting to stay above Kerry so I can have a shot at the presidency. I’m also fighting to stay above Edwards so I can have a shot at the vice presidency.

6:50 p.m. PT: Wow. I was just upstairs reading my son The Story of Babar. In the story, Babar the elephant is anointed king after the old king eats a poisonous mushroom and dies. The picture of the old king dying is awful. He’s shriveled up, and his face is ashen.

I come downstairs, and Howard Dean looks like he just ate a poisonous mushroom.

Dean tells Larry King, “We got our ticket punched to New Hampshire, and that’s what matters.” I recall hearing the ticket metaphor in 1988, when the guy claiming there were three tickets out of Iowa was Michael Dukakis. That’s an auspicious analogy in the sense that Dukakis went on to win the nomination. But it’s an inauspicious analogy in the sense that Dukakis lost the election badly—to a guy named George Bush—and Democrats don’t want to repeat that mistake.

I’ve said before that Dean is very different from Dukakis. But they do have one thing in common that seems to have hurt Dean in Iowa: Difficulty relating to people. In Dukakis’ case, the problem was bloodlessness. In Dean’s case, it’s arrogance and abrasiveness.

On CNN and MSNBC, Dean is acting like nothing happened tonight. I guess that’s what he has to do. But it’s a lot easier to look that way when you don’t care what people think of you. What’s not so easy to do, with that attitude, is to win the presidency.

3:50 p.m. PT: Call off those entrance polls. My 3-year-old son, Eli, has determined the winner of the caucuses.

“Who do you think will win tonight?” I asked him as we sat down to dinner. “Howard Dean, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt—”

I never got to finish the sentence. “Dennis Kucinich,” he announced firmly, lifting a forkful of spaghetti.

My wife answered him with a forecast of her own: “Your future in punditry is short.”

3:10 p.m. PT: I’ve wondered for a month how long Howard Dean’s ammo clip was. Here he was, pinned down by a horde of rivals and reporters armed with a seemingly endless supply of Dean gaffes. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat came the gaffes. How could Dean survive this onslaught? With endorsements. Every time a gaffe went zinging past Dean’s head and the enemy seemed ready to charge over the hill, Dean fired back a testimonial that buried the bad news. Rat-tat-tat went a new gaffe about Saddam Hussein. Blam went Al Gore. Rat-tat-tat went an old gaffe about Iowa. Blam went Bill Bradley. (Or something like that.)

The gaffes kept coming. It seemed Dean could never survive them all. But every time we thought he was out of ammo, blam went another round, fending off the horde. Tom Harkin, Carol Moseley Braun, Jimmy Carter … Did Dean have enough rounds left to make it to the caucuses?

Yes, he did. But it was close. So close that in the final hours he had to drag the most reluctant endorser of all to Davenport. Welcome to Iowa, Judith Steinberg Dean. You were the last bullet.

2:30 p.m. PT: I’m going to blog the Iowa caucuses tonight, in between feeding my kids and getting them to bed. It should make for a confusing evening. “And then the big bad wolf—hold on, Sweetie, I think Peter Jennings is about to make the call …”

I’d better put up a few items to give folks something to chew on till the caucuses get underway. Let’s start with Jim Rassman, the former Green Beret who was rescued from a river under fire by John Kerry in Vietnam. Saturday in Des Moines, Rassman brought tears from Kerry and a crowd as he told the story of the rescue and said he owed Kerry his life. Sunday in Waterloo, he was supposed to tell the same story, but—oops—he shorthanded it. He said something nice about Kerry’s character, then handed the mike to Kerry, who was still holding a cup of water and expecting Rassman to tell the story. Kerry fumbled for a segue and tried to convey the story without quite telling it, since that would have looked self-congratulatory. Even on script, Kerry is awkward. Off script, his ad lib was painful to watch.

This is the problem with inviting normal people to tout you on the campaign trail. A normal person tells a story and then figures the story’s been told. He doesn’t understand “message,” the art of telling the same story five times a day, 350 days a year. The fact that Rassman dropped the ball makes me think more of him for being a real person, and more of Kerry for taking a chance on him. I just hope Rassman doesn’t join Kerry on the trail in New Hampshire, and South Carolina, and on and on. It wouldn’t take long for Rassman to get his lines down and become just another slick endorser. Stay real, Jim.