Ballot Box

Blocking Back

Clark stops Edwards from stopping Kerry.

Thoughts on Tuesday night’s results and speeches in the Democratic presidential race:

1. Oklahoma. When Wes Clark entered the presidential race five months ago, I said it was a rebuke to John Kerry for failing to catch on as “the candidate with the war record, the candidate who was supposed to keep the party in the center and fend off the standard-bearer of the left.” I still think it was a rebuke. But Kerry reclaimed his role, and now Clark is clearing his path to the end zone by blocking the only candidate who could stop Kerry: John Edwards.

First Clark squashed Edwards’ official campaign kickoff in September, leaking word that very day that he would get into the race. Then, a week ago, Clark beat out Edwards for third in New Hampshire by a fraction of a percentage point. That cost Edwards the ability to claim plausibly that he had continued his momentum from Iowa. Tuesday night, it happened again: Clark eked out a margin over Edwards in Oklahoma so narrow that the state election board will have to review the ballots before declaring an official winner. Edwards argued that he had “exceeded my expectations” and that his finish in Oklahoma, combined with his win in South Carolina, was “a continuation of the surge we’ve seen in other caucuses and primaries.”

Nice try. I think Edwards would be the strongest Democrat in the general election. Nobody expected him to do this well in Oklahoma. But when the history of the 2004 race is written, my guess is that we’ll look back at Oklahoma as Edwards’ Stalingrad. He had to kill off Clark. The media were itching to write off Clark, and a no-win night would have given them license to do so. Now they can’t. Clark will go on to Tennessee and Virginia, where he’ll do what he did in Oklahoma: split the non-Yankee vote and keep Kerry in the lead. Maybe Edwards will win Tennessee and Virginia, and Clark will fade. But by then it may too late to stop Kerry.

Edwards was clearly pining for a Clark defeat in Oklahoma. He delayed his flight to Tennessee more than an hour as he waited for the last returns to trickle in. On CNN before the Oklahoma returns were final, Edwards said, “This race has narrowed dramatically tonight.” He said the differences between himself and Kerry would “become clearer and clearer as the race focuses on the two of us.” On Fox News, Edwards said the contest was looking “more and more like it’s a two-person race. I’m looking forward to that two-person race.”

Oops. A couple of hours later, Clark took the stage in Oklahoma to declare, “The results are in! We have won!” Rubbing it in, Clark boasted that a week earlier he had “won the non-New England portion of New Hampshire.” It’s a thin but valid claim. And now Edwards will have more trouble running as the outsider against Kerry, because Clark will run as the outsider against both senators. As Clark put it to Larry King Tuesday night, “I’m an outsider, Larry. I haven’t been in the Senate. I didn’t vote for No Child Left Behind. I didn’t vote to go war with Iraq, and I didn’t vote for the Patriot Act.” The general who auditioned for the role of John Kerry is ending up instead with the role of Howard Dean.

2. Attacking Kerry. Dean’s doing it, but nobody’s listening, because Dean has faded, and coming from him, it’s just another Dean-bites-man story. Clark’s doing it, but it doesn’t carry much punch, since he has failed to establish himself as a plausible nominee. Edwards is more plausible but refuses to attack. Tonight he hinted at a few differences, noting that he could relate to working-class people because he came from a working-class family, and that he had opposed trade agreements such as NAFTA. But again, Edwards insisted on framing these differences in terms of his own virtues rather than Kerry’s faults.

Edwards is being way too subtle about this stuff to hurt Kerry. The key ingredient in Kerry’s comeback has been systematic theft of any message that’s working for any other candidate. Kerry will give you whatever you’re looking for in the other guy, plus credibility on domestic policy and national security. Edwards’ and Kerry’s speeches Tuesday night glaringly illustrated this. Edwards talked about standing for fairness against privilege. He decried the poverty of millions of Americans. He said he would seek opportunity for everyone, no matter where they came from, no matter what the color of their skin. Three hours later, Kerry talked about standing for fairness against privilege. He decried the poverty of millions of Americans. He said he would seek opportunity for everyone, no matter where they came from, no matter what the color of their skin. Kerry is like the aging boxer who hugs the challenger to deprive him of the distance necessary to land a solid punch.

What might yet save Edwards—and I half suspect he’s counting on this—is that the media can’t stand this civility. They’re starving for a fight. Tuesday night, the TV interviewers practically begged Edwards to attack Kerry. On CNN, Bob Dole coached him to go after Kerry’s record. It was all Dole could do to refrain from shouting, “Damn it, don’t you have a dark side?” But Edwards has come a long way in this race by being patient and letting others—Dick Gephardt, Dean, and Clark—do the dirty work of attacking, so that Edwards could rise through the pack untarnished. Now he seems to be playing the same game with the media. Tuesday night, TV anchors pressed Kerry on his vulnerabilities, and CNN’s Judy Woodruff reframed Edwards’ positive comments about himself as implicit criticism of Kerry, in effect delivering the punch on Edwards’ behalf.

3. National vs. regional candidates. Kerry’s biggest achievement is that he’s now the only candidate who’s running strong everywhere. I winced when he claimed to have finished “enormously close” to Edwards in South Carolina; I don’t recall Kerry aides treating Dean’s finish in New Hampshire, which was nearer to the top than Kerry’s finish was in South Carolina, as enormously close. But Kerry legitimately pointed out that he’s the only candidate who campaigned in all seven of the Feb. 3 states, and he won five of them. Who else can make such a claim? Clark skipped Iowa. Edwards has competed everywhere but won only his native state. To hear Edwards tell it, winning South Carolina showed his ability to win among Southerners, blacks, and rural voters. Edwards also claimed in TV interviews that Oklahoma demonstrated his strength in the “heartland.” This is how a clever lawyer makes strength in two states sound like strength in half the country. But they’re still just two states.

4. Kerry’s religion problem. On the night he won New Hampshire, Kerry criticized President Bush for trampling the boundary between church and state. Tuesday night he did it again. That’s zero nods to faith and two warnings against religious overreach in a week. Kerry was supposed to be the guy who would save Democrats from Dean’s tone deafness on taxes and national security. So far, however, he seems equally tone deaf on values.

5. Kerry’s establishment problem. Dean squandered some of his populist resonance when he began to spotlight endorsements by big shots like Al Gore and Bill Bradley. Kerry had less populist resonance to begin with and can’t afford to squander it the same way. Tuesday night on CNN, he brushed aside his defeat in South Carolina by noting that the state’s top Democrats, Sen. Fritz Hollings and Rep. Jim Clyburn, had supported him. This has to be the first time I’ve seen a presidential candidate brag about having the endorsement of a state party elite after the voters rejected that endorsement. Kerry went on to boast that the governors of Michigan and Washington were backing him as well. Somebody needs to remind him that the voters call the shots, and they don’t take well to candidates who appear to care more about courting self-styled power brokers.

6. Battlefield egalitarianism. Everyone expects Kerry’s military record to patch up the Democrats’ difficulty on national security. What’s less understood is how it might patch up his difficulty connecting with ordinary people. In his victory speech, Kerry spoke again of his “band of brothers” from Vietnam. And when he was asked during an interview about his comfortable upbringing, he turned the discussion to his service in Vietnam, where “nobody cared about what your background was. They cared about whether you were a standup person and fought, and they cared about whether you did your duty and covered people.” It’s a tremendously powerful answer, and Kerry will need every bit of that power to overcome his Brahmin aloofness if he ends up in a showdown with Bush.