NEW HAMPSHIRE — As Larry King queried Howie Dean last night about the early returns showing John Kerry beating him by 20 points, John Edwards taking a close second, and the good doctor a distant third, the ticker on the screen while he spoke said it all: “Former Frontrunner Howard Dean.”
Everyone wants to know what the Iowa returns mean in the context of the New Hampshire race. The answer, traditionally, is not much. Iowa rarely picks winners, either for New Hampshire or the nation.
But last night was different. Iowa caucus goers pulled off Dean’s cloak of invincibility, and the supposed inevitability of Dean as the Democratic nominee is now in question. The promise of an Internet-based, grassroots revolution that could not be stopped has dissipated. Two years of time on the ground, and 3,000 Dean volunteers in the state, could not deliver more than 18 percent of the vote. This casts doubt on Dean’s identical plan for New Hampshire.
The loss could have been a huge boon for Dean. He could have secured some of that other “big mo,” the momentum of the underdog. Considering his sky high unfavorability ratings, he could have made a concession speech showing that he could be humble, gracious, and, well, human.
Instead, with the returns barely in, Dean acted out in the worst possible way. He became every sane Democrat’s nightmare of him: an unpolished, raging, egomaniacal dwarf. Looking like a school bully in need of a Ritalin drip, the red faced Dean stormed the stage dishing out vicious high-fives over and over again into the palm of an increasingly concerned Sen. Tom Harkin. Dean then took the microphone, nearly falling over as he began a tirade during which he promised to beat all of the other candidates in their home states.
It got worse. At one point he started shouting in Spanish while thrusting his finger this way and that. He didn’t look presidential; he looked like a possessed man in need of an exorcist — more Dr. Strangelove than Dr. Dean. Perhaps he was just drunk.
“We will not quit, now or ever,” Dean roared. “We have just begun to fight.”
IN CONTRAST, the victory speeches of Edwards and Kerry were measured, gracious, and sane. Kerry and Dean supporters in their New Hampshire offices were greatly buoyed by their wins, while the Deaniacs hitting the New Hampshire airwaves after the loss were as petulant as their leader.
The Iowa vote may have shifted everyone’s calculations. For months candidates have been vying for the position of the anti-Dean. Clark, Gephardt, Kerry, and Lieberman all referred to this race at one time or another as a two-man contest between themselves and the doctor. They were competing for the privilege of losing to Dean. Now everything has been turned upside down. There are now many targets beside Dean, and many threats. The race has just begun.
So here’s the situation on the ground in New Hampshire one week from the primary. The latest American Research Group poll shows Dean with a slim lead at 28 percent. Kerry is at 20 percent, Clark 19 percent, Edwards 8 percent, and Lieberman 7 percent. With Gephardt out of the race, his 3 percent is now up for grabs — no small lot in a contentious race.
Granted, it will take a lot of work for Edwards, Kerry, or Clark to make up the point spread between themselves, Dean and Clark. But after the baffling reversal of fortune in Iowa, can anyone claim it can’t be done?
Perhaps the biggest losers in Iowa were not even candidates at all. They were Rob Reiner, Martin Sheen, Al Gore, Bill Bradley, Tom Harkin; all of whom stumped in Iowa for Dean. The unions also lost big time with Gephardt’s poor showing. Good luck derailing NAFTA now.
Dean and Clark’s string of celebrity endorsements aren’t looking like they will make a lick of difference in New Hampshire next Tuesday. It’s going to come down to the actual candidates, exhausted and on edge. If Dean cannot recover his bearing, he will lose. Undecideds and independents will flee from him.
If Kerry can not face down General Clark, reassert his veteran’s credentials, and capitalize on last night’s upset, Iowa will be a hollow victory, indeed. Clark clearly sees the threat, and pulled rank last night. “It’s one thing to be a hero as a junior officer,” Clark said of Kerry. “He’s done that. I respect that. … But I’ve got the military experience at the top as well as at the bottom.”
A respectable showing in New Hampshire would carry Edwards and Clark to the South where they plan to make their real stand. Clark is in talks to hire GOP strategist John Weaver, a senior member of McCain’s 2000 team, to try and offset Democrat momentum with independent votes.
Lieberman may have just received the endorsement of New Hampshire’s only statewide paper, The Union Leader, but he and Clark have had the state to themselves for a week now and his movement in the polls has been negligible. His candidacy seems unlikely to catch fire with all the post-Iowa excitement surrounding Kerry and Edwards now.
Meanwhile poor, poor, Dennis Kucinich figures his campaign is right on track with his one percent showing in Iowa. “No one figured we’d do any better than fifth place, so I neither exceeded nor fell below expectations,” he explained.
Not everything that happened in Iowa last night was a surprise, but it did set the stage for a bitter New Hampshire primary fight. The major candidates all flew into the state last night in the wee hours of the morning. The temperature is set to go below freezing again tonight. Some wag might call it the winter of the Democrats’ discontent.
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