- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

Following the shocking implosion of the Dean campaign in Iowa, and the unexpected fourth-place finish of the Gephardt campaign, the contest for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination is in an unplanned political purgatory. There is a new frontrunner, John Kerry — that is, the original front-runner is now riding on top again. Dick Gephardt has withdrawn. Howard Dean is scrambling to avoid drowning. John Edwards is trying to make his impressive second-place Iowa result into momentum. And Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark, who eschewed the Hawkeye State, are now back in the line of sight in New Hampshire.

Many of the traditional rules of national campaigns were broken in Iowa. But most of all, it was a case study of a candidate, albeit clearly in first place going in, not showing the temperament and a campaign unable to employ its great resources to close the deal. Much has been said, and will be said, about Mr. Dean’s surprise loss in Iowa, but it remains basically true that he and his campaign were simply not able, or not ready, to take command of the contest once the opportunity was given to them.

The irony now is that, while New Hampshire has almost always been the more important of the two initial and retail events of the nominating season, it has probably been relegated in 2004 to being just another station on the journey to the national convention. By shattering expectations, Iowa has put the contest into unexpected turmoil. It is now predicted, and the earliest post-Iowa polls confirm, that neighbor Mr. Kerry will win New Hampshire by a healthy margin. But predictions are treacherous acts this campaign year. Even if Mr. Kerry wins clearly, his rivals and the media will likely just label him the presumptive favorite and move on to the next primaries. If he does not win, or wins by a narrow margin, the race will become even more muddled.

It has been so long since there was a race all the way to the national convention that it is easy to forget that this contest is really about numbers of delegates. Ahead of the initial primaries are states with fabulous riches of delegates — i.e., New York, California, Texas, Florida, Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Jersey. Of course, if Mr. Kerry wins all or most of these by big margins, the race is over. It could happen that way, but it is more likely that as the contest goes south and west, the results will be mixed — with all of the five major candidates accumulating numbers of delegates, and Mr. Edwards and, even possibly, Mr. Dean and Mr. Clark, winning some of these states.

The endorsement of Mr. Dean by Al Gore, Bill Bradley, Tom Harkin, Jesse Jackson, Jr., Jimmy Carter (not quite officially), Carol Moseley Braun, et. al, was not due to their overwhelming passion for Mr. Dean. Rather, it was, in part, their calculation that the nominating process (once an apparent winner was established) should be concluded quickly so that the Democratic nominee could be competitive with President Bush in November. In this sense, 2004 resembles 1984, when there was an establishment consensus that Walter Mondale should be nominated quickly so that he could concentrate on beating President Reagan, especially after John Glenn failed to excite voters. But Gary Hart, a prototypical new kind of Democrat, would not play ball and won the New Hampshire primary and several after that. Mr. Mondale had the time and the resources to regroup his forces, and prevailed just before the convention. He carried only one state in November.

Mr. Dean will now attempt to repair the damage to his campaign, and in his more comfortable role as underdog, will try to make a comeback. Although he has been totally dismissed by some observers, he has significant remaining resources of cash and organization in large states where his earlier message resonated. The question is whether his ardent supporters will stick with him or move on to other candidates.

The leaders of the Democratic Party know that the longer their nomination remains in doubt, the more difficult will be the effort to defeat Mr. Bush. Failing to have an early consensus for Mr. Dean, they are unlikely to have one soon, now that the competition goes into “wholesale” states where enormous amounts of money — and valuable remaining good will between the various interests of the party — will have to be spent.

These strategists, consultants, rich contributors and establishment figures of the Democratic Party, as I have suggested, would like the process ended as early as possible, and at the least expense. But as the pundits (including this one) learned one more time in Iowa, the voters are in charge of who is going to run for president, and they will make up their minds in their own way — and in their own good time.

Barry Casselman has reported on and analyzed national politics since 1972.

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