- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2004

The New Hampshire primary did not offer any big surprises. After Sen. John Kerry won Iowa in a landslide and Howard Dean started to repair his damaged standing, the most riveting question of the contest was who would come in third place. This hardly makes for an exciting horse race, but the relative success of the second-place and third-place runners will prove important down the stretch.

With big wins in Iowa and New Hampshire under his belt, one potential obstacle preventing Mr. Kerry from sewing up the nomination is the threat that the three plausibly competitive candidates — Mr. Dean, John Edwards and Wesley Clark — can among them deny the front-runner enough delegates to win. If the three can consistently get at least 15 percent of the vote each as they run through the states, they could force the leader into a long march that brings no clear winner to the convention.

No plausible level of fund raising for any of the candidates — including Mr. Kerry — will be enough to run expensive statewide advertising in contests in places such as Arizona, Michigan, New York and California. Thus, it will be hard for any of Mr. Kerry’s opponents to dramatically deflect the electorates in the coming states from their natural positions, which presumably benefits the momentum-possessing front-runner.

Deciding on a nominee is not the most important issue facing Democrats. No matter who is the standard-bearer, eventually the party will have to decide on a comprehensive strategy to counter Bush administration policies. The thorniest topic will be how to handle Iraq. Thus far, the media has spared the candidates from probing questions about specific policy alternatives to the Bush agenda. But if a candidate puts himself forward to lead the country, he needs a comprehensive vision for leading the military and managing security issues.

Mr. Clark, who says his experience as a field commander would make him a wise commander in chief, has promised that he would get our troops out of Iraq. To date, however, he has not elaborated on how, or what he would do to stabilize the nation in the absence of U.S. power. Mr. Kerry has had it both ways, voting for the use of force in the Senate and later distancing himself from the authorization. In the last week, he has both praised the administration for ousting Saddam Hussein and slammed it on war decision-making. Mr. Dean’s antiwar position has always been straightforward.

What the Democratic candidates have in common is that none has set forth what they would do to make the future more secure. Criticizing the current president is one thing, but it is not sufficient to merely say that one wouldn’t have gone into Iraq in the first place. If elected, what would they do now? As the campaign unfolds, it will be necessary for the candidates to articulate how they would deal with the world if elected. Come Nov. 2, Americans will not reject Mr. Bush if the alternative lacks a viable plan for America’s defense.

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