John Kerry’s back-from-near-dead victory in the Iowa precinct caucuses has dramatically transformed the race for the Democratic presidential nomination and stripped much of the allure off the insurgent, Internet-powered candidacy of former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who finished third in the caucuses behind North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
Pundits and strategists, awed by Dean’s ability to raise $40 million in campaign funds last year, had been ready to proclaim Dean a virtual certainty to win the Democratic nomination.
His fund-raising ability and his apparently astute diagnosis of the mood of Democratic voters —irate, anti-Bush, anti-Iraq war — seemed to give him an emotional edge over any of his rivals.
Pundits scoffed at Kerry when he fired his campaign manager and struggled to hone his message on the campaign trail.
And the Dean campaign piled on, sending a sarcastic e-mail to reporters on New Years’ Day, with the subject line “I’m dying out there,” a quote from a Kerry fund-raiser who told a Boston newspaper that he was having a hard time convincing donors to back Kerry.
What happened to Kerry — and to Dean — to cause such a stunning reversal of fortune?
Clearly something good was brewing on the ground in Iowa for Kerry in recent weeks. Part of the Kerry resurgence was sparked by the white-hot rhetoric of Sen. Edward Kennedy who made two campaign trips to the state to kindle support for Kerry.
But, perhaps more importantly, what Kerry’s Iowa supporters said in interviews with MSNBC.com was that his Vietnam combat experience convinced them of his decency and courage.
“I have two nephews who served in the Army in the Vietnam War,” Lois Dencklau, a Kerry supporter in Fort Dodge, told me on Thursday.
“I felt exactly the way Kerry did: it was a terrible war. But that didn’t stop him from being there and serving his country.”
And when Kennedy introduced Kerry on Saturday in Waterloo, Iowa, the lines in his speech that got the loudest applause were Kennedy’s recital of Kerry’s heroism under fire.
Some Iowa Democrats mentioned Dean’s draft deferment and his skiing in Colorado during the war.
It might be that the Vietnam War — and what candidates did during it — is being fought all over again in Democratic ranks.
In addition, Kerry also managed to bring a crisper, more pugnacious persona to his campaign appearances in recent days.
At the same time, doubts grew among Iowa Democrats over the past several weeks as they mulled over Dean’s sometimes abrasive self-assurance.
It wasn’t that Iowa Democrats didn’t know Dean: He spent more than 75 days campaigning in the state, more than any of his rivals.
Dubuque Democrat John Goodman, an Edwards supporter, said of Dean, “It seems like he’ll say just about anything whatever suits the situation. ... For him to call himself an antiwar candidate is really disingenuous.”
Dean, who advertised himself as a man of courage for opposing the Iraq war, had in fact supported a resolution in October 2002 that would have authorized President Bush to wage war unilaterally against Iraq, even if he was not able to get UN support.
The 'arrogant' label
Other rank-and-file Iowa Democrats repeatedly used the word “arrogant” to describe Dean. It was Edwards and perhaps his pollsters who seemed to sense more than a month ago that the Dean persona was rubbing many Iowa Democrats the wrong way.
“If all we are in 2004 is a party of anger, we won’t win,” Edwards began saying in November.
Edwards, who had previously called Dean condescending, added, “When you’ve fought and worked your way up, you don’t look down on anybody.”
The culmination of Dean’s you’d-better-nominate-me-or-else bravado came right before New Year’s Day when he told reporters in Iowa, “If I don't win the nomination, where do you think those million and a half people, half a million on the Internet, where do you think they're going to go? They're certainly not going to vote for a conventional Washington politician."
But while this exciting race in Iowa did bring in new voters and young voters, entrance poll interviews found that Dean fared worse among younger voters than Kerry did.
In the NBC News Survey of 1,141 Democrats as they entered the caucuses Monday night, among voters age 17 to 24, Kerry won 35 percent to 25 percent for Dean and 20 percent for Edwards.
Seventeen percent of caucus attendees were age 17 to 24, up significantly from 9 percent in 2000.
Dean said he would bring new people into politics and to the caucuses. But Kerry won the backing of 36 percent of the first-time caucus participants, while Dean took only 22 percent, just about as many as the 24 percent won by Edwards.
If Kerry can capitalize on his strong performance in Iowa to win next week’s New Hampshire primary, he becomes the anti-Dean and can give the former Vermont governor a battle all the way to the nomination.
“Even with this shocking outcome, Dean's campaign has the financial resources and well-oiled grass-roots operation in the follow-on states to be extremely competitive and still holds a tenuous grip on front-runner status in New Hampshire,” said Rich Killion, a pollster at Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire. “Dean's fate is now in the hands of New Hampshire voters. If the second trial brings a similar outcome, the Dean campaign will be in free fall.”
Another pollster, Republican Whit Ayres, cautioned that analysts should not jump to conclusions about Dean. In 1988, the third-place finishers in Iowa, George Bush on the Republican side and Mike Dukakis on the Democratic, ultimately won their party’s nominations.
“Finishing third in Iowa is not a death knell” for a contender, Ayres said.
But Dean rival Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who got 1 percent added his own acerbic commentary about the role of the news media in inflating the Dean candidacy. “This is the beginning of the campaign," said Kucinich. “We've got 49 states left to go. The media had long ago predicted the winner of the entire process and even the loser of the general election, and tonight's caucuses have the pundits scratching their collective scalps in bewilderment.”
Kucinich said that he, not Dean, was the genuine anti-war candidate.
While Dean was the night’s big loser, Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt was its most poignant loser.
By finishing fourth, despite a massive push by 21 labor unions to get blue-collar voters and retirees to support him, Gephardt has reached the end of the road for 2004.
Edwards joined Kerry as the sensation of the evening. A strong second-place finish in Iowa puts Edwards in good shape to compete in New Hampshire, but more importantly strengthens his appeal in South Carolina’s Feb. 3 primary, where he’ll square off with a contender who didn’t compete in Iowa, retired Gen. Wesley Clark.