Kevin Lamarque  /  Reuters
Sen. John Kerry, left, now faces a one-on-one contest with Sen. John Edwards.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 2/17/2004 11:25:03 PM ET 2004-02-18T04:25:03

By winning Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry looks likely to continue on a course that will sooner or later give him the 2,162 delegates he needs to clinch the Democratic presidential nomination.

But the narrowness of his victory over North Carolina Sen. John Edwards might well raise questions among Democratic voters in the next round of primaries in New York, California and eight other states two weeks from tonight:

  • If he is ultimately the nominee, which Kerry will show up to campaign against President Bush in the fall: the crisper, polemical Kerry who dominated the closing stretches of the Iowa and New Hampshire contests or the lackluster, senatorially verbose Kerry of Sunday night’s debate performance?
  • Was last week’s news media flurry over an alleged illicit liaison between Kerry and a young woman, which she flatly denied, the end of such stories or the precursor of other such allegations? Did the spate of stories cause Wisconsin voters to second-guess Kerry? A suggestive item from the exit poll data: Of those voters who said they made their decision in the final week, 46 percent voted for Edwards, compared with only 30 percent for Kerry.
  • Is the almost upset win for Edwards in Wisconsin only an unpleasant bump in the road for Kerry, or will it require an agonizing re-appraisal of Kerry’s candidacy?

One answer to that last question: Edwards has won only one out of 18 contests so far in the Democratic primary season, while Kerry has won 16 out of the 18.

And prior to Tuesday’s balloting, Kerry had more than three times as many delegates committed to him as Edwards did.

Prelude to California, New York
But another and perhaps definitive answer will come from voters in California, New York, Ohio and seven other states that hold primaries in two weeks.

The contests on March 2 hold a treasure trove of 1,151 delegates, which is 53 percent of the number needed to clinch the nomination.

By coming close to winning in Wisconsin, Edwards has brought about what the Kerry forces had hoped to avoid: a direct comparison of the two contenders.

Edwards, who has gotten more impressive as a stump speaker and debater as the campaign has rolled on, would be a formidable opponent if Kerry were to agree to a head-to-head debate.

Prompted by exit poll interviewers, voters in New Hampshire, Michigan and the other states that Kerry won said they deemed him the most electable; that is, the most likely Democrat to defeat Bush.

But once you peel off the statistical exit-poll wrapping, “electability” proves to be a maddeningly elusive concept.

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Wouldn’t Democrats who take the trouble to vote in a presidential primary want to oust Bush, and thus wouldn’t they vote for the candidate they think is best able to do that? Of course, they would, and they do.

In every election there are protest voters and pure ideologues, but they’ve always been relatively few in number. Electability is essentially an act of faith, the voters’ best guess that one candidate sounds presidential and can defeat Bush.

On Monday, Kerry was swathed in electability; on Tuesday night, his electability cloak had slipped.

Edwards as populist
On the campaign trail, not only in Wisconsin but for the past few months, Edwards has been perfecting his persona as a down-home populist, making the case that his small-town, son-of-a-mill-worker origins give him an affinity for the struggles of people who live from paycheck to paycheck, people who — unlike Kerry — did not attend Yale University and aren’t fortunate enough to be married to one of the wealthiest women in America.

The argument seems to have paid off.

Another part of Edwards’ stump speech is more problematic.

Edwards assails the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he blames for the loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States. Kerry voted for NAFTA; Edwards was not a member of the Senate when it was approved in 1993.

But Edwards (and Kerry) voted for the 2000 trade deal that paved the way for China to join the Word Trade Organization. According to the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, the trade association for the textile industry, over the last 12 months, China has increased its exports of textiles to the United States by 85 percent while 49,000 U.S. textile workers have lost their jobs.

Don’t be surprised if Kerry starts to use the Edwards vote on the China trade deal to call into question the North Carolina senator’s credentials as a friend of the working class.

The money question
Kerry had hoped to focus his money-raising efforts on battling Bush from March until July, when the taxpayer subsidy of the campaigns takes effect.

Now Kerry must instead rely on his donors to pay for the renewed effort that will be required to defeat Edward.

But in what must be a bitter irony for ex-front-runner Howard Dean, Kerry will benefit from an unintended gift from Dean.

In November, when Dean chose to opt out of the taxpayer-subsidized campaign finance system for the primary season, he explained his move by saying he needed the freedom to raise and spend campaign funds freely so he could counteract Bush advertising that would be run against him once he clinched the nomination.

Kerry followed suit by opting out of the spending limits. He will now raise and spend freely to try to defeat Edwards, who chose to stay under the spending caps, which apply to each of the 10 states at stake on March 2.

Although the Dean campaign lies in ruins, Dean’s decision will pay rich dividends for Kerry.

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