Saving the Democrats

Posted: Jan 29, 2004 12:00 AM

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Early Tuesday afternoon, fear gripped those Democrats who had begun to feel better after the Iowa caucuses. The first exit polls showed the Democratic presidential primary much closer than expected with a possibility that Howard Dean might overtake Sen. John Kerry. But exit polls in New Hampshire are notoriously inaccurate, and anxieties were soon relieved. After voting ended at 8 p.m., it was clear Kerry would win comfortably.

Beating President Bush would unify Democrats, but nominating Howard Dean to accomplish that end had grown increasingly less attractive. The anguish engendered by the flawed polling was not merely the prospect of nominating Dean, the candidate desired by Republicans as a fat target. Kerry turns the page for 2004 on Al Gore, the Clintons and left-wing labor leaders.

Kerry's basic policy consists of one new government program after another. Nevertheless, as a war hero, hockey player and hunter, supported by veterans and fire fighters, he projects the Democratic Party's image into the moderate center. Kerry is also a skilled professional politician, unlikely to commit the blunders of Dean or the Clintonian alternative, Gen. Wesley Clark. Win or lose in November, Kerry saves the Democrats from the disaster that beckoned a month ago.

The false impression from exit polls early Tuesday afternoon resulted from samples by upscale morning voters who, said one analyst, "looked like the catalogue mailing list of Neiman-Marcus." The only subgroup carried by Dean Tuesday self-identified as "very liberal," comprising just 15 percent of the state's Democratic electorate. Vastly more numerous "moderates" preferred Kerry, four-to-one.

The Dean campaign, forged by longtime political operative Joe Trippi's brilliant use of the Internet, can be said to have effectively ended in New Hampshire. In no state did Dean enjoy such hard-core support welded into a carefully constructed organization. This was the state he had to win to regain momentum after Iowa.

With Dean's candidacy hanging in the balance, his most important endorser was nowhere to be seen here. He wasn't wanted. Al Gore had swooped in with the surprise endorsement at Dean's apex just before he began his precipitous decline. While Democratic activists maintain that the 2000 election was stolen from Gore, they blame the former vice president for his maladroit campaign. Gore's use of the Dean phenomenon as a ticket back to prominence did not help either of them.

Prior to Kerry's resurgence, the seeming alternative to Dean did not relieve the party's malaise. In Democratic circles, Wes Clark was viewed as the candidate of the "Clintonistas" -- probably not of Bill and Hillary themselves, but of their close political friends. It was assumed Clinton intimate Eli Segal would not have become Clark's campaign manager without approval from the former president and/or Sen. Clinton.

Clark's bleak performance as a campaigner in the week prior to Tuesday questioned the wisdom of convincing the career officer that he could open his political career by running for president. He ended a week full of gaffes the day before the election by giving the impression that he wanted voters to think that, as a poor boy, he had worked his way through West Point. All this campaign did was tarnish his desirability as a vice-presidential selection.

Sen. John Edwards, not taken seriously until his strong second-place finish in Iowa, disappointed in New Hampshire by virtually tying with Clark for third and fourth place. Edwards campaigned just as hard and effectively here as in Iowa, but the magic did not travel well. He failed to get the needed boost for the Feb. 3 primaries.

Kerry's aides won't admit it publicly, but they see a chance to sweep the board in next Tuesday's seven primaries and thus wrap up the nomination at an early date. His weakest state in this group is South Carolina, where Edwards leads narrowly in the polls and Clark will try to save his candidacy. This cluster of non-liberal states is ill-suited for Dean, who may make the tactical blunder of skipping Feb. 3 and looking ahead to a more congenial environment in Michigan and the state of Washington. The nomination now is John Kerry's to lose, and he doesn't make many mistakes.