When I interviewed Howard Dean two weeks ago, I asked him, in effect, how he was holding up. He said fine, that he was a little tired — he sounded it — but that it would all be over soon. The race, that is.
I don’t think so. Dean has been running, with impressive intensity, for two years. But he has miles to go before he sleeps — and so does everyone chasing him.
Any hopes that he and other Democrats had for a quick, decisive end to the presidential nominating season are vanishing here in a nasty crescendo of TV attack ads and street combat. These guys are out for blood, and they have good organizations to draw it. Dean may well win here, but I’m not sure it’s going to be the end of anything.
It’s possible that four contenders — Dean, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry and John Edwards — could finish within spitting distance of each other. In that case, more people would be “winnowed” in than “winnowed” out, winnowing being what the Iowa caucuses are supposed to do. And since neither Wes Clark nor Joe Lieberman is playing here, they aren’t being winnowed one way or another.
I don’t think I’ve seen a cycle in which there is so much technical expertise in the campaigns: There are a lot of very professional people at all levels of these six campaigns. But assuming that the hired help does its job, here and in the other “early” contests, what do the candidates themselves need to do to survive?
Here is my suggested survival guide — what to do and what to avoid — for each:
Get some rest. Seriously. You have to understand that, as hard as you have worked and as much history as you have already made — transforming the tenor and technology of 21st century American politics — the race has only just begun. Take a deep breath. This is not wrestling, your favorite sport in high school. It is a marathon, which is one of the things about the enterprise Bush understands.
Hammer on the Iraq war as you are doing now in your new TV ads. It’s the essence of your campaign and it is the one irrefutable argument you have for the hopelessness (from the Democratic activists’ point of view) of the “Washington Democrats.”
Bet the ranch on Iowa and New Hampshire. To state the screamingly obvious: You can’t afford to lose, of course, but you also can’t afford to win by unimpressive margins. If I am wrong, and a quick knockout is still possible, you’ve got to grab it.
Don’t worry about schmoozing the insiders. Your chief endorsers — Al Gore, Bill Bradley and (soon) Jimmy Carter — are testament to the fact that you are and always will be an outsider. There will be time enough for diplomacy, later.
You are coming on strongly in Iowa, but you have to realize that you may have left your flank uncovered back in New Hampshire. The Vietnam vet theme of your ads is working. It gives a generational emotion to your appeal, and that means something. You seem to have recovered some of the energy you lacked in the time immediately after your prostate surgery of last year. Be upbeat!
Whole forests have been pulped to write the story of how you can’t talk anything other than legislative-speak on the campaign trail. You are doing better but it is not good enough. Imagine you are back in ’Nam, and that you are talking to your platoon.
Your best argument: You have the background, experience and character to beat Bush.
I saw you in Des Moines the other night and you were terrific. You gave a whole speech without once mentioning a bill that you sponsored in the Senate. You were damned near eloquent — and there isn't a whole lot of eloquence in politics these days. A touch of the Kennedy magic is good. Keep it up.
You won Iowa in 1988, and then faded. The problem is that there are too many jokes in Iowa about your campaign. One is: "Dick Gephardt has been at 22 percent in the Iowa polls since Ronald Reagan was president." (That's STILL where you are, right up to last night.) Another: "What's the loneliest job in American politics? Dick Gephardt's youth coordinator."
Your first rule of survival: Laugh at your own longevity. What you have to offer is that you are an adult, arguably the adult, in the race. People respect you, your family, your demeanor. The industrial guys love you because you have been there when they needed you on trade issues from Day One.
I'm glad to see at your events in Iowa that you aren't trying to be something you are not.
The paradox for you is that everything depends on Iowa — but even if you win it you can't expect to get much of a bounce. You are nowhere in New Hampshire, and never will be. You will get the Missouri delegates on Feb. 3, but the key is South Carolina. I know you have Rep. Jim Clyburn, the prominent black congressman from that state, with you. His black community has to be yours. I know James Brown is for Bush, and Hootie of the Blowfish is for John Edwards, but you're the one who has to own the black vote.
The nice guy routine has gotten you pretty far. Your doggedness and sunny good humor has made you a favorite in the editorial board rooms and among people who are tired of the nasty tenor of the Democratic race.
But to be taken seriously, you are going to have to get down and dirty at some point. People aren't just interested in anger. They need to know that you are one of the smartest, toughest plaintiff's lawyers on record, and that you are willing to take your opponent apart in a merciless fashion.
That is what the Democrats want their nominee to do to George W. Bush. They want a prosecutor, genial among friends, perhaps, but a junkyard dog when it comes to fighting Republicans. If you have a chance to take it to one of your opponents (as you did to Howard Dean in the "confederate flag" flap) do it.
Howard Fineman is Newsweek’s chief political correspondent and an NBC News analyst.