- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s failure to capitalize on his front-runner status in last night’s Iowa caucuses shows how divided and uncertain the Democrats are about who their candidate should be, setting the stage for a longer-than-expected nomination battle.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s stunning come-from-behind victory — after being given up for dead a few weeks ago — and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards’ surprising second-place showing, turned the nominating contest into a three-way race with Mr. Dean, who two weeks ago led all Iowa polls.

Mr. Dean remains the leading candidate in New Hampshire, but his defeat, especially by such a large margin, ensures a bitter battle in next week’s New Hampshire primary and in subsequent contests, such as South Carolina, where both Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards can win.

With Mr. Dean’s declaring he will fight to the end, the Democratic contest could last well into February or March, a scenario a Bush campaign strategist says favors the president.

A long, protracted fight for the nomination in which the Democrats beat up on each other only can work to the president’s advantage, they think.

“It is natural for the Democratic Party to be fractured at this point. There was no dominating Democrat, no big foot, at the beginning of this nominating process, and that’s what we’re still facing now after Iowa,” said Terry Michael, former press secretary to the Democratic National Committee.

Besides invigorating the campaigns of both Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards, who will use their performances to rally support, it also appears to have ended Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt’s candidacy, the 1988 Iowa winner, and serves as the first major crack in the support that Mr. Dean has been able to rally this year as an antiestablishment, antiwar candidate opposed to the Iraq conflict.

It shows that Democratic voters, besides supporters Mr. Dean has cultivated using the Internet, are concerned about his viability as a challenger to Mr. Bush and might be looking for someone with more “experience” in foreign policy and national-security issues, something that Mr. Kerry charged that Mr. Dean does not have.

According to an entrance poll by the Associated Press, Mr. Kerry got an especially strong boost from voters who said the most important candidate quality was that he “has the right experience.” Among the roughly 15 percent of voters who said that, more than half told pollsters that they supported Mr. Kerry.

Mr. Michael, as well as other Democratic strategists, think that the importance of the Iowa caucus has been exaggerated by the news media.

“We don’t want to be seen having a difficult time choosing our nominee, that’s not a good message to send to the voters. But this will sort itself out soon enough,” said a Democratic Party adviser to one of the major candidates. “New Hampshire is going to clear the air, and then it’s on to South Carolina on Feb. 3.”

“But, yes, this could take a little longer than we anticipated,” the adviser said.

All of the sound and fury in the Democratic nominating race has masked how splintered — and disinterested — the party’s rank and file has remained for more than a year about its candidates. Various polls show that anywhere from one-third to nearly half have not made a decision or might change their mind.

Throughout the past year, polls showed that nearly 50 percent of all Democrats could not name one of the candidates running for the nomination.

A New York Times poll yesterday found that whatever Iowa’s caucuses decided, the succeeding primaries dramatically could change the race — with 74 percent of voters saying that their minds still are not made up.

Mr. Michael sees the race shaping up similarly to the Democrats’ 1988 effort.

“I think we are seeing something similar to what we saw in 1988 in the Iowa caucuses,” when Mr. Gephardt won, only to lose badly in New Hampshire to Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who went on to become the nominee, said Mr. Michael.

“There was no decisive decision then in Iowa, and the contest was all sorted out after New Hampshire. That’s what will happen now. The Iowa caucuses are going to mean very little in the Democratic presidential battle.”

All of the major candidates in the caucuses face serious problems in the upcoming New Hampshire primary and beyond.

Mr. Dean still faces the problem of proving his electability to a doubting party — few of whose leaders have endorsed him.

Mr. Kerry has been sinking in the polls in New Hampshire — down to 19 percent in the latest American Research Group survey, far behind Mr. Dean, who has 28 percent, and even trailing late-entry Wesley Clark, who has jumped into second place with 20 percent.

Even Mr. Edwards remains in the low single digits in New Hampshire.

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