The score for Tuesday night: John Kerry 5, John Edwards 1, Wesley Clark 1. From this, it follows that Kerry’s frontrunner status is solidified, and that Edwards and Clark will remain in the race. The same can’t be said for poor Joe Lieberman, who has dropped out. Howard Dean seems to exist in a parallel dimension where he is still a serious factor in the race; the best he can hope for in this universe is to become a small factor.
So, how might this race shape up? The answer may simply be that Kerry will coast to an easy coronation at the convention, and one surely must allow for that. But bear in mind two things: One, there are many horrible things that can be quite truthfully said about John Kerry. Two, Chris Lehane and Mark Fabiani work for Wes Clark.
Lehane and Fabiani, Senior Communications Counselor and Senior Advisor to the Clark Campaign, respectively, are long-time business partners nicknamed the “Masters of Disaster” for their specialty at creating PR problems for their opponents. Slinging mud at other campaigns is all they know how to do; whenever any other type of political talent is called for, they tend to fail. Mickey Kaus habitually refers to Lehane as “counterproductive overspinner Chris Lehane”; he earned the title through his work for non-President Al Gore, non-Governor Gray Davis, and John Kerry, whose campaign was on life support when Lehane left the organization in the fall; Kerry bounced back afterwards.
As part of the Clark team, the Masters of Disaster are likely to return to what they do best: attack. John Kerry is an ample target (which, having recently worked for him, Lehane certainly must know). Kerry has a habit of being on two sides of an issue; The New Republic dug up constituent letters from Kerry taking both sides in the run up to the 1991 Gulf War, and his straddle of the most recent Iraq war is legendary. Of course, Clark’s been all over the map himself on the Iraq war; if that makes his advisers reluctant to raise the issue of inconsistency on matters of war and peace, then there are other examples. Clark has already dredged up Kerry’s history of being on both sides of Affirmative Action; there’s also the matter of having voted against the Defense of Marriage Act while now claiming to oppose gay marriage. And then there are the dreaded special interests that Kerry’s stump speech condemns: over the past 15 years, Kerry has raised more money from lobbyists than any other senator.
Dean will stay in the race at least for another week or two, and is in a desperate enough position that he may also be going negative on Kerry. Deaniacs are seething with anger over the Kerry campaign’s dirty tricks; reportedly, likely Dean voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and New Mexico have gotten sleazy phone calls badmouthing Dean. Some calls said that Dean’s not a real Christian because he married a Jew, according to one rumor. Joe Trippi blames the Kerry campaign for calling Dean’s “ones” in Iowa — voters certain to be in the Dean column — with a recording giving them the wrong address for their caucus. Dean may begin to air these grievances publicly, or reporters with nothing else to write about may bring the story into the mainstream.
If the attacks on Kerry get more intense, who benefits? Edwards, of course. He’s building a reputation for keeping it positive; it’s a testament to Edwards’s political acumen that his few shots at Kerry have been delivered gently enough to go mostly unnoticed. For Edwards to reap the benefits of others’ attacks is his best shot at a strong run for the nomination. It will help that the press corps inherently craves a horse-race to cover, and seems to like Edwards better than Kerry.
Of course, any boost to Edwards probably still wouldn’t be enough to stop Kerry’s charge to victory. In that case, the benefits of the attacks on Kerry will be passed right along to President Bush.
John Tabin is a frequent online contributor to The American Spectator whose website is JohnTabin.com.