John Kerry Speaks in California at UCLA
Chris Hondros  /  Getty Images file
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry campaigning in Los Angeles last Thursday.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 3/2/2004 9:13:49 PM ET 2004-03-03T02:13:49

The night belonged to John Kerry. But there was a poignant moment for Howard Dean.

Dean, who went from small-state obscurity to being acclaimed the near-certain Democratic presidential nominee and then back to obscurity again, all in the space of a few months, won Tuesday’s Vermont primary, disproving the title of Thomas Wolfe’s famous novel, “You Can’t go Home Again.”

The former Vermont governor’s poignant victory in his home state begins to close the circle on this very odd primary season.

So passionate at its start last spring, the struggle for the Democratic nomination sedately rolls to an end with the man pundits mocked last fall as wooden and aloof, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, scoring victories in most of the 10 states that held contests on Tuesday.

Kerry is likely to end Tuesday night in what looks to be an unassailable position to clinch the nomination.

Slideshow: On the campaign trail And Dean, the man who seemed last year to best epitomize the spirit of rank-and-file Democrats irate about the Iraq war, has the bittersweet honor of winning only his own state.

In Tuesday's biggest contest, California, with 370 delegates to be claimed, Kerry is likely to score a a crushing victory over North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, if pre-election polls accurately gauged that state's Democratic electorate.

Yet this is the same man who last March at the California Democratic Party convention in Sacramento was jeered and mocked for his vote for the Iraq war resolution that President Bush sought.

On the defensive a year ago
Kerry looked awkward and warily defensive at that event last March 14 as he tried to explain why his vote on the war did not disqualify him from being the Democratic standard-bearer.

“Some people have said, well, what about that vote in Congress, but the president had the authority" to go to war already, even without a congressional vote, Kerry explained to the Sacramento audience. Somehow they didn't seem convinced by that answer.

Despite the vote in Congress in October of 2002, Bush had still not earned "the legitimacy and consent of the American people," Kerry said last March.

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Most California Democrats attending that convention in Sacramento were outraged by what appeared to be an inevitable war and, in fact, the fighting did begin a few days later.

As Kerry spoke to the convention that Friday night, one heckler repeatedly bellowed, "No war, John, no war!"

Making peace with Kerry
The mystery of the Democratic primary electorate remains: How did mad-as-hell party activists make their peace with Kerry?

One answer is that Kerry used one war, the one in Vietnam 35 years ago, to defuse the Democrats’ explosive anger about another war, Iraq. In virtually every speech on the campaign trail, Kerry made his service in the Navy in the Vietnam War a centerpiece of his argument that only he among the contenders had lived through war and knew the sacrifices that it demanded.

He had the best of both worlds to appeal to a Democratic electorate many of whom had spent their teens and 20's agonizing over the Vietnam War: He was both a veteran who heard shots fired in anger and an anti-Vietnam War protester after he was discharged from the Navy.

Kerry, of course, was also the beneficiary of strategic blunders made by Dean and his other opponents. Dean's "Perfect Storm" of volunteers in Iowa, for instance, turned out to be a voter-alienating fiasco.

In retrospect, the biggest gamble and the smartest move Kerry made was last fall when he decided to pour resources into Iowa to try to win the Jan. 19 caucuses. At that point, Kerry was sinking in opinion polls even in his own back yard, New Hampshire.

Kerry won the Iowa gamble and his victory knocked Dean into a downward spiral from which he never recovered.

So where does Kerry stand now, if, as looks pretty certain, he is Bush's Democratic opponent?

Preliminary polling boosts Kerry
A recent Gallup poll has encouraging news for Kerry: In a survey of 568 likely voters conducted on Feb. 16 and 17, Kerry led Bush, 55 percent to 43 percent in a hypothetical November face-off.

The Bush campaign will spend the coming months “educating” undecided and independent voters, most of whom did not take part in the Democratic primaries, to persuade them that Kerry’s record does not mesh with their own philosophy.

Kerry, for instance, has voted against mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of selling drugs to minors and against the death penalty for drug-related murders.

The non-partisan Washington insiders’ policy magazine, National Journal, issued its annual ratings of members of Congress last week and found that, relative to his 99 colleagues, Kerry was the most liberal senator of all, based on 62 key roll call votes cast in 2003. Kerry was more liberal than 97 percent of his fellow senators.

On the premier social issue of the day, whether states must give legal recognition to marriages between gay couples, even most of the Democratic primary electorate, especially in the South, is conservative.

In Georgia, exit poll interviews with Democratic voters Tuesday showed that only 16 percent of them favored legal recognition of same-sex marriages.

1996 vote on marriage
For Democratic voters who oppose same-sex marriage, Kerry’s vote against the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by President Clinton, which gives states the authority to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, may be troublesome.

Kerry says, “I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman,” but he opposes a proposed constitutional amendment that would say “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman.”

But perhaps given the events of Sept. 11, 2001, this will dwindle in significance in an election not determined by how far “out of the mainstream” on social issues either Kerry or Bush is.

For the first time since 1944, this is a national election coming after an enemy attack on the United States.

The events of Sept. 11, the possibility of future al-Qaida attacks, the perilous situation in Iraq, the danger of nuclear weapons trafficking by Pakistani scientists, and the North Korean menace all cast a different light on the choice voters make in November than the one they faced in 1988 when Republicans defeated another Massachusetts liberal.

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