- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Though it’s garnering little attention from the political press corps, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign has been plummeting.

Once the odds-on choice to win the Democratic nomination and take on President Bush, Mr. Kerry’s emotionless, messageless campaign has stalled. All the momentum is rolling with feisty former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose combative, ultraliberal, antiwar campaign is surprising the pundits and rousing the Democratic Party establishment.

Arguably, Mr. Kerry has the sharpest campaign team in the business, and the heaviest hitters. But what Mr. Kerry may possess in senatorial gravitas, he lacks in personality, bite and soul.

Mr. Dean, however, is all bite, jabs and left hooks. His stump speeches leave Democratic audiences pumped and ready to sign up.

“It’s message vs. no message,” says independent pollster John Zogby. “Dean is focused. His messages can fit on a bumper sticker. They’re clear. You know who he is and where he stands. He reminds me of John McCain.

“John [Kerry] just hasn’t found a focus yet,” Mr. Zogby says. “He is all nuances. He comes across as an academic. He can give you the competing arguments on every major issue and have you walk away and say, ‘Yeah, but where does he stand?’ ”

The result: Mr. Kerry’s campaign is in a slump and, at least for now, shows no signs recovering. By mid-August, Mr. Dean had jumped 7 percentage points ahead of him in New Hampshire (28 percent to Mr. Kerry’s 21 percent). The only other Democrat in double digits at that point was Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri (10 percent).

Meanwhile, Mr. Kerry is not really in play in Iowa, which once belonged to Mr. Gephardt (who won there in 1988). Mr. Dean, however, has caught up with the former House Democratic leader and, in some polls, has passed him. Mr. Kerry, at best, is running in third or fourth place in that state, depending on what poll you look at.

Nationally, most Democrats either know little about Mr. Kerry or dislike what he is selling. For months he was ambivalent on the war in Iraq, but is now trying to reinvent himself as a staunch critic of Mr. Bush’s postwar plans. Mr. Zogby has Mr. Kerry doing no better than fourth in his nationwide rankings with 9 percent, running behind Mr. Dean, Mr. Gephardt and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who are locked in a three-way tie with 12 percent each.

With just four months to go before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary in January, Mr. Kerry is shockingly weak in just about every region of the country, according to Mr. Zogby.

In the Eastern states, Mr. Lieberman and Mr. Dean were locked in first place with 13 percent each. Mr. Kerry, a New Englander who you would think would do best in the East, is in the backfield with Mr. Gephardt and Al Sharpton — barely drawing 4 percent.

In the South, Mr. Kerry is tied with Mr. Sharpton at 9 percent, trailing Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Lieberman with 15 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

Mr. Kerry trails badly in the Central/Great Lakes region with 8 percent, well behind Messrs. Gephardt, Dean and Lieberman. His best regional showing is in the West, where he runs 2 points behind frontrunner Mr. Dean (17 percent).

Among independents, reportedly the fastest-growing voting bloc in the country, which will be critical in open primaries, Mr. Kerry is running behind his top three rivals.

Mr. Dean’s surge in the final months of the pre-primary races comes from a combination of factors: His skillful use of the Internet to raise money, turn out party activists for his appearances and build national support for his candidacy. His strategic decision to run TV ads in Iowa and New Hampshire in August surprised Mr. Kerry’s advisers, who decided not to run ads until after Labor Day, “when voters are paying attention.”

Apparently, Democratic voters are paying attention earlier than anyone thought, which has Mr. Kerry’s advisers worried. If he loses New Hampshire after a dismal showing in Iowa, it will devastate his campaign, say his opponents’ camps.

“It’s difficult for any candidate to do poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire and be taken seriously, and it becomes even more difficult if you are a New Englander and do poorly in New Hampshire,” says Jim Demers, Mr. Gephardt’s strategist in the Granite State.

Kerry adviser Phil Johnston, the Massachusetts Democratic chairman, cautiously told me last week: “If Kerry loses New Hampshire, I think he would have the resources to go on. But I don’t want to speculate, because I think he will win.”

But right now, Mr. Dean has clearly got the top spot, while Mr. Kerry is trying to jump-start a campaign that may have peaked several months ago.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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