The wisdom of Iowa

Posted: Jan 22, 2004 12:00 AM

DES MOINES -- How did John Kerry and John Edwards escape political oblivion to finish one-two in Iowa's caucuses as contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination? They improved their candidacies, but what happened here Monday night was principally rejection of Howard Dean's politics of anger.

The obscure former governor of Vermont only two weeks ago was conceded inside the party as the inescapable nominee mobilizing partisan rage. In the end, he proved too much for a state whose trademark is niceness. Dean finished his campaigning Monday afternoon by denouncing the news media, and reacted to his decisive defeat hours later with a public rant.

The conventional wisdom had been that Dean's peculiarities would be neutralized by this state's caucus system, where organization and passion would guide 120,000 Iowans (out of 2.9 million) who braved bitter cold to caucus Monday night. Instead, the wisdom of Iowa prevailed. The 41 percent of caucus-goers who made up their minds the last week (according to entrance polls) overwhelmingly rejected Dean and turned to Sens. Kerry and Edwards.

Kerry's comeback was predicted to me two weeks ago by Bob Shrum, his veteran campaign consultant. Shrum has seldom made such forecasts to me about his clients in the more than 30 years I have known him, but when he has they have been accurate. He was so optimistic because Kerry finally straightened out his chaotic campaign organization and defined himself as a war hero able to protect the American people from terrorism.

Edwards rose from also-ran status when he escaped the claustrophobia of multi-candidate debates as the best campaign stump speaker in the field. Last Friday, I saw Edwards entrancing an overflow morning audience at Bettendorf on the Mississippi River as he did North Carolina accident case juries to become a multi-millionaire trial lawyer. He solved his problem of looking too young to be president by a belated television ad making clear he is 50 years old. Refraining from attacks on his opponents, he appealed to Iowa niceness.

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who remained neutral, correctly analyzed what was happening here. He saw Kerry and Edwards on the rise, and forecast that Rep. Richard Gephardt's massive labor union support would not save him from a fourth-place finish here and the end of his candidacy. Yet, Vilsack also bought into the notion that Dean's "ground game," with thousands of anti-war volunteers inundating Iowa, probably would prevail.

Experienced politicians and reporters here were bemused by Deanites, wearing their trademark orange stocking caps, roaming the streets of Des Moines and other Iowa cities. These excited activists were misinterpreted as the vanguard of a political revolution. Buying into the erroneous theory that polls were valueless in this caucus state, the experts underestimated the impact of Dean's accumulated gaffes.

Of all Dean's bizarre comments, his opponents felt the most damaging was his statement that mass killer Osama bin Laden deserves a fair trial. While the war in Iraq fueled the Dean phenomenon, its limitations as his overriding campaign issue were reflected in Iowa's entrance polls. Caucus-goers disapproved of the war by 3 to 1, and those that considered it the top issue strongly backed Dean. But they comprised only 14 percent of all voters.

Dean's liabilities against George W. Bush were demonstrated Monday, just before and after the caucuses. He railed at the heavy presence of the news media, claiming it threatened his scheduled appearance at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in Des Moines and then canceling the date. His post-caucus speech to supporters in which he ripped off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and launched a prolonged rant ("We will not give up!") had experienced Democratic politicians shaking their heads.

Iowa delivered a devastating blow to Howard Dean and may have saved its caucuses. Before Monday's results, both national and state political leaders privately predicted that 2004 would be the last year that this state kicked off the Democratic presidential selection process. That death sentence would have been confirmed if the quirky caucus process had sustained the Dean phenomenon. Instead, Iowa now looks like as good a place as any to begin presidential competition.