With his bounce-back-from-the-brink 26 percent finish in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, Howard Dean can claim a moral victory and a surprising one, if one keeps in mind that exactly a week ago, Dean was gasping for breath after his stunning third-place finish in Iowa.
The problem in politics is always: What do you use as your baseline? Is it the dominant Dean of October or the deflated Dean of last Thursday?
Powered by Dean loyalists’ anger at the news media for repeatedly replaying the “Dean scream,” the former Vermont governor regained control of his campaign over the last five days and played the gallant warrior in New Hampshire.
Another Bill Clinton?
Dean’s 26 percent is better than Bill Clinton’s 24.8 percent second-place finish in the 1992 New Hampshire primary, a showing that made him the self-proclaimed “comeback kid.” Clinton’s famous line in that campaign was telling Granite State voters that he’d fight for them “until the last dog dies.”
So now the question is: Will Dean struggle on for the nomination until “until the last dog dies?"
On Sunday, one of Dean’s labor union allies, political strategist Larry Scanlon of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), made the conscious parallel between Dean in this year’s primaries and Clinton in 1992.
“Clinton lost a number of states in February and March and he won the Southern states, but he lost Connecticut and Maryland. Ultimately it was nailed down in New York in April. So we think this is a long slog,” Scanlon said.
A Dean strategist said Tuesday a few hours before the votes were counted that the Dean camp was in the primaries for the long haul. “It would be a mistake to obsess on the Feb. 3 contests,” he said.
The next round
Given the organization and Dean-minded constituencies that he has in place, Dean could pick up wins in the New Mexico primary next Tuesday and the Washington State caucuses Feb. 7. His brand of high-minded liberalism is also a good fit for Wisconsin, a state that holds its primary Feb. 17.
If Dean won all these states, he could be in reasonably good shape to fight with Kerry, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and retired Gen. Wesley Clark in the 10-state extravaganza of primaries and caucuses March 2.
“We’re in relatively good shape in New Mexico” because AFSCME is the largest union in that state, said AFSCME President Gerald McEntee.
And in Wisconsin AFSCME has 40,000 members.
Dean also gets a vote of confidence from the other big union which has endorsed him, the Service Employees International Union. “SEIU is in this as long as Howard Dean is in it,” said an SEIU leadership source on election night.
At this point, the Dean-Kerry contest shapes up as something like the battle of Stalingrad, with the two fighting it out right through and perhaps beyond the March 2 contests.
What about the Iraq war?
The nagging ideological question underlying the horse race is: Is the anti-war wing of the party willing to settle for Kerry, who voted for the Iraq war resolution, as the Democratic nominee?
NBC News exit poll interviews of New Hampshire primary voters indicated that two-thirds of them disapproved of the decision by Bush and Congress, including Kerry, to go to war with Iraq.
“We’d be playing right into Bush’s hands,” said anti-war insurgent candidate Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, when MSNBC.com asked him about the prospect of a man who voted for the Iraq war resolution being the Democratic nominee.
Kucinich said that during a debate in the fall campaign Bush could turn to Kerry and say, “Well, senator, you agreed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. You agreed with me.”
Despite the unresolved war issue, many in the traditional Democratic donor base — the people who wrote $1,000 checks to the Clinton and Al Gore campaigns — will likely throw their weight behind Kerry.
Dean would have to hope that his faithful army of small-dollar donors would chip in another $500 or $100 per person.
Edwards suffers some with his fourth-place finish behind Clark which washes away some of the benefit Edwards got from his surprising second in Iowa.
Edwards has always needed a win in next week’s South Carolina primary and now he needs it more than ever.
But if the Democratic contest evolves into a three-man battle, there are worse things than being the regional candidate with most of the Southern delegates.
Clark’s weaknesses as a stump speaker became more and more apparent during the final six days of the New Hampshire battle. Edwards, on the other hand, has proven to be an immensely gifted intuitive campaigner. If elections were decided on rhetorical performance alone, a betting person would need to put his money on Edwards to defeat Clark in South Carolina.
Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe wanted the severely front-loaded primary schedule so that the party could settle on the nominee early in the year, but a “Stalingrad” scenario confounds that hope. Thus, it is good news for the Republicans.
Summing up the night from a Republican perspective, pollster Whit Ayres said, “It’s clear that one candidate beat expectations, one candidate failed expectations, and for one candidate it remains to be seen.”
Besting expectations, in Ayres’ view: Kerry, who was written off as a hapless failure shortly before Christmas. Falling short of expectations, according to Ayres: Clark, who entered the race as a sterling four-star newcomer in September.
And remaining as the puzzle: the enigmatic Dean.