Columns » John Brummett

Kerrying Iowa: Dean in the tank


We knew by last weekend that the Iowa caucuses would do a little rewriting of the script in the Democratic presidential race. We did not know they would render moot all that had gone before. We knew Howard Dean had become shop-worn after months of attacks, scrutiny and blunder. We knew John Kerry and John Edwards were on the move. We knew that Iowans who could not abide George W. Bush had initially embraced Dean for his anti-war ferocity. But we sensed they were beginning to ponder whether the best way to hurt Bush might be to nominate a candidate seemingly more electable than the polarizing, stereotyped Dean. That would be Kerry because he's a war hero and Edwards because he's a Southerner. We knew Dean still had the endorsement of Iowa's beloved senator, Tom Harkin. We figured he would be forced into something resembling a three-way tie and emerge wounded, but with plenty of money and backing to recover to fend off Wesley Clark in New Hampshire. We thought these would be moments in the sun for Kerry and Edwards, after which Kerry would fade because he's simply not that scintillating and Edwards would fade because he's inexperienced. We were still thinking Dean vs. Clark, the latter of whom had been lured into the race as the Democratic establishment began looking for an anti-Dean because Kerry and Edwards had been early busts. But we could not have known that Kerry would end up with twice as many delegates as Dean and that Edwards almost would. We could not have known that Dean's third-place finish with not quite 18 percent would be less impressive than Michael Dukakis' third-place finish to Dick Gephardt and the late Paul Simon in Iowa in 1988, when Dukakis got 22 percent. And we could not possibly have known that Dean would perform a "Dukakis in the tank" kind of moment with a maniacal screaming speech to supporters afterward. He may merely have been trying to rally the troops. But he came off as so wild that at the least his antics will become late-night talk show fodder. At the most they will scare the daylights out of New Hampshire voters who had been inclined to support him. Before going further, we must keep in mind that seemingly momentous things like this have happened before in Iowa, only to become ancient history a week later in New Hampshire. They've happened twice, to be precise. In 1980 George Bush the elder upset Ronald Reagan in Iowa and proclaimed he had "bigmo." Then he and Reagan went to New Hampshire where Reagan wiped him out. And, as mentioned, Gephardt won Iowa in 1988, but Dukakis swept New Hampshire a week later. People wonder what all this means to Clark. We have two absolutely conflicting schools of thought. One is that Clark was second to Dean in the polls in New Hampshire and now stands to shoot to the top in the Granite State. But the other is that Kerry pre-empted Clark's anti-Dean role in Iowa and that Edwards' renewed vitality threatens Clark's role as the designated Southerner going into the big races Feb. 3 in South Carolina and Oklahoma. Clark's job was simpler when all he had to do was beat Dean, who had many negatives. Now he finds himself in hand-to-hand combat with two guys who came upon his flanks under radar. History has shown that Iowa doesn't decide the race, but merely begins to define it. You need to wait for New Hampshire. Then you might even need to wait for South Carolina. At any rate, a few days ago Dean was the presumptive nominee and Clark was the only candidate who might stop him. Today there are three possible nominees - Kerry, Clark, Dean - and maybe even a fourth in Edwards. It may be that we'll simply have to wait and see.

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