NEW HAMPSHIRE — Monday was a rocky day in the Granite State. With an increasingly tight race, candidates held a mind-boggling number of events. The marathon began at sunrise and tore right through until 11:40 p.m. when Wesley Clark wrapped up his day at Dixville Notch, where the first primary votes are cast at midnight.
This is a notoriously difficult state to get a handle on. Look at the 2000 primary for example. Ten percent of those who participated in that contest did not register until the day of the primary, and, thus, were outside the purview of pollsters. Independent voters, who make up 38 percent of the electorate, can vote in either primary. In exit interviews, 47 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans did not choose a candidate until the week before the election. A full 15 percent of Democrats and 10 percent of Republicans said they did not decide who they would vote for until election day.
The pollsters are not much help this year. John Kerry is thought to have anywhere from a 3 to 21-point lead over Howard Dean. Lieberman, Clark, and Edwards all place third in one poll or another. Undecideds are making up right around 14 percent of likely primary voters.
The verdict? Cue vicious laughter. But since the pollsters cannot come to a consensus and people love columnists who are silly enough to make predictions, there seems little harm in sharing some anecdotal evidence about trends on the ground here at the nation’s first primary.
First of all, watch out for John Edwards. I’ve been banging this drum for a long time, but three weeks ago the North Carolina senator couldn’t get more than 50 people out to his events. Yesterday he had 600 to 700 showing up at appearances all over the state. He even had to split one of his “town hall meetings” up into two speeches in the same place with the huge crowd changing places during intermission. With Kerry and Dean going negative on the last day of campaigning, look for Edwards to close the deal with many undecideds and independents. I believe he is a serious contender for second place.
Much is being made of Howard Dean’s eleventh hour rebound. Local Democrats who abandoned Dean after Iowa told me they were coming back to him because of the undue attention the media put on his “I have a scream” speech. “Everyone has a bad day,” one woman told me. “People act like he shouldn’t be human.”
Such empathy is stemming the flow of Dean supporters to Kerry. After all, what Democrat wants to seem like she’s conceding to right-wing talk radio? Nevertheless, Dean’s reaction has been to go on the attack, disparaging Kerry and the rest of his opponents. Defying logic, Dean came out swinging again with a controversial statement about ordinary people in Iraq being “worse off” than under Saddam Hussein. Wrong move. No doubt he has a potent organization here and is still has a shot at the top spot, but whether New Hampshire voters will respond to the return of angry Howie is an interesting question. My guess is they will not.
And we can’t forget the animosity between Dick Gephardt and Dean. The three or four percent of voters who supported Gephardt are not headed for Dean, but to Kerry and Edwards. I’ll be looking for Dean in third place if independents go to Edwards as I believe they will.
Joe Lieberman is proclaiming he now has “joementum” with independent voters. He clearly hopes to mimic John McCain’s surprise win here in 2000. But McCain pulled off that 18-point victory by supplementing a strong Republican base with independents. Lieberman does not have that base. Fourth place, in my view, would be a major victory for him, for all the good it would do him.
John Kerry is riding around in a helicopter today. Despite New Hampshire’s love of tripping the frontrunner at the polls, Kerry has not made any major missteps in the last week. He may not trounce Dean and Edwards as he would like to going into South Carolina and Missouri, but a loss at this point would be a big upset and a major turnaround.
Wesley Clark has failed to understand his candidacy and is losing steam. His “higher standard of leadership” slogan was perfect and he surged on that while the other candidates were focused in Iowa. But his subsequent flip flops and bizarre statements — endorsing abortion until the very moment of birth, claiming the internal combustion engine was “obsolete,” and hanging out with Michael Moore — have taken their toll. These mistakes will haunt him if and when he heads south.
Finally, I’ll go out on a limb and say that Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton will fight it out for last place.