Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary is shaping up as an event that may not winnow the field of Democratic contenders, but instead may raise the stakes for a round of nine contests next week.
Although Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is leading in recent New Hampshire polls, what may matter most is how big a margin of victory he achieves and whether Howard Dean rides a wave of support from his newly energized loyalists to overtake Kerry.
“We’re in good shape,” Dean said Sunday. “We’ve turned the corner, we’ve come up and now we’ve got to win.”
Strong second in New Hampshire?
But even if he finishes second in New Hampshire close behind Kerry, Dean’s money, his field organizers and his alliance with two big labor unions, the Service Employees and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) put him in good shape to take on Kerry in the Arizona, New Mexico and Missouri primaries a week from Tuesday.
Already AFSCME is dispatching its top political organizers to Missouri to generate support for Dean.
With the distinct possibility that New Hampshire will not deliver a knockout blow to any of the major contenders, the seven contests on Feb. 3, plus the Michigan and Washington elections on the following Saturday, Feb. 7, take on added significance.
Those nine contests will be a good sample of the Democratic electorate in all regions of the nation and will account for 13 percent of all the delegates to be chosen to the Democratic National Convention.
If a contender has failed to win a single one of those nine states, his candidacy will almost certainly lose its funding and viability.
Only four days ago it appeared that Kerry was building such an insurmountable lead in New Hampshire and Dean tumbling so quickly that he might manage only a humiliating fourth-place finish in the Granite State.
But the former Vermont governor has regained his footing and his supporters are voicing renewed determination, arguing that Dean has already forced his rivals to shift to a more combative anti-Bush stance.
“He has to a large degree changed the path from ‘Republican lite’ to Democratic populist,” AFSCME president Gerald McEntee told his union’s activists Sunday as he introduced Dean at an AFSCME rally.
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, although drawing respectful crowds in New Hampshire, has spent the final days of the New Hampshire campaign reasserting his credentials as a Democrat. To place second here or to win outright, Clark would need a strong turnout from independents, who might see him as an anti-establishment maverick.
If a New Hampshire voter is registered as “undeclared,” meaning independent, he may declare a party affiliation on primary day and vote in that party’s primary.
Clark would also need more than the 12 percent of Democrats that he draws in current polling.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman are also appealing to independent voters.
Edwards has been sticking to his fervent neo-populist pitch, as he did in Iowa last week, vowing that if he becomes president he will confront Washington corporate lobbyists and “cut them off at the knees.”
Lieberman’s campaign released a radio ad in New Hampshire on Sunday touting his support from voters who admired his gutsy defense of his support for the Iraq war in last Thursday’s debate. Lieberman also is rising in polls, placing third in a Gallup survey of New Hampshire voters released Saturday.
Mindful that Dean’s Iowa defeat had destroyed his aura of invincibility, Dean loyalists have been urging voters to take a closer look at the flaws of his rivals.
“For Sen. Edwards’ supporters to think that somehow he can win the South when the polls show he could not have been re-elected to the Senate in his own state, I think there needs to be a reality check here,” said California Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who visited the Granite State to campaign for Dean late last week.
'Slice and dice'?
As for Kerry and his liberal-leaning Senate voting record, Lofgren contended the Republicans “are going to slice and dice him in the general election if he’s our nominee. Howard Dean has a more moderate record in the areas that really count.” She noted that while she herself has an “F minus” rating from National Rifle Association, Dean received an “A” rating five times in a row. “That is a threshold issue in West Virginia, in western Pennsylvania, in Ohio. You can’t take Kerry’s record on guns and win those states.”
A Dean rank-and-file activist, New York medical student Albert Hsu, who was canvassing in New Hampshire for Dean this past weekend said, “The Republicans are spreading disinformation by saying, ‘We want to run against Dean.’ No, Dean terrifies them.”
And Renee Cote, who is working hard for Dean in both her home state of Maine and in New Hampshire, said “John Kerry’s uniform can only protect him so far. Look what happened to (former Georgia Senator) Max Cleland, he is a triple amputee and they ran him out of his seat because he wasn’t patriotic enough. Howard Dean has the ability to fight George Bush and go toe-to-toe with him and he will not back down.”
But Kerry’s foremost Granite State supporter, former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, uses exactly the same phrasing. “We need someone who can go toe-to-toe with George Bush, we need someone like John Kerry who has a military record and understands issues of national security,” Shaheen said.
For some New Hampshire Democrats, Dean’s brusque and free-wheeling rhetoric is a risk they are not willing to take.
Last spring, attorney Lucy Karl, a strong advocate of Bill Bradley in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, considered supporting either Dean or Kerry. Dean even stayed overnight at her house during a campaign tour of the state and impressed her three sons. Like Karl, Dean has been active in Planned Parenthood.
But Karl began to have doubts. “As a liberal I loved him being in peoples’ faces, but I’ve grown pragmatic.”
The Kucinich effect
Dean may also face some costly “leakage” from anti-war voters who are drawn to Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich. In contrast to Dean, Kucinich has called for rapid withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.
Marilyn Dewey, who runs a bed-and-breakfast inn in Durham, said as she showed up at a Dean event Saturday, “To tell you the truth, I didn’t know who I’m going to vote for, because I am more liberal than Dean. So if I didn’t think it would be a waste, I might vote for Kucinich.”
As contenders trekked from one town hall meeting to another, and hunted votes from coffee shops to bowling alleys, undecided Democrats searched for each contender’s signs of electability.
“I think my vote is going to hinge between Clark and Kerry,” Karl said. “Where is my message stronger? I’m going to look at polls in the next several days because if we can send Kerry out of here strong and powerful, that would be very important.”