Iowa, a rather forgettable place otherwise, has done its job. It reduced the presidential field by about half, cut the legs out from under a wheezing carcass of a front-runner, gave a shot in the arm to two others and dramatically rearranged the calculus of the contest. Then everyone caught flights to New Hampshire, dug their fingernails into the icy ground and prepared for what may turn out to be a more protracted race than previously expected.
Ever since James Earl Carter virtually moved to Iowa in the mid-’70s, won the caucus and thereby catapulted himself to the Democratic nomination, Iowa has served alternately as a great political launching pad or graveyard. The lesson is that it’s possible for a candidate to survive the place even if he doesn’t win it, but it’s not possible to lose badly there and continue. Obviously, this still holds true.
Perhaps the biggest question to be explored post-Iowa this time around is whether Howard Dean’s political free-fall can be stopped, or even stalled. The epochal tale of Dean may ultimately rate as one of the greatest political lurchesboth up and downby any candidate in recent memory. One day he was the nominee; now he’s just hanging on.
Commentators are standing in line at every cable station in the nation waiting to explain his misfires, but one that will probably be little discussed is this: The Internet that may have birthed Dean’s political day in the spotlight showed its horrible limitations as a medium. Countless voters were introduced to Dean by e-mail correspondence from friends, digital fundraising solicitations and other cyber come-ons. Political consultants then pronounced that Dean had invented a wholly virtual method of creating a political following. But as it turned out, the experience was much like getting to know some really cool person by e-mail, falling in love with them, and then, upon an actual face-to-face meeting, discovering that this person is bone ugly inside-out.
What a colossal letdown. Politics is entirely a people business, but Dean gave them nothing much beyond his anger and opposition to the war. There was no character to make the argument, just the argument itself. His aides put him in a moss green sweater, but that didn’t soften him up; they brought his wife in for a day, but she vanished as quickly as she’d come.
If there was any moment that stood out uglier than all others, it may have been his Iowa concession speech Monday night, which was a seriously oddand at some level troublingspectacle to behold. If voters had just let him know that his anger would only get him so far, that they were looking for other parts of his personal makeup to round out their understanding of him, he instead let his vein-popping rage loose at full volume, screaming that he would take the nation state by state, yelling that he would ultimately seize the White House by any means possible. Commentators were left agog at the brutality of the moment. Everyone else was left hard of hearing.
If Iowans rejected the negative, they also rejected the old. Dick Gephardt’s campaign was fueled by organized labor, and it got him about as far as organized labor manages to get itself these days, which is nowhere. Gephardt banked on support from an America that is two or three decades vanished. Contrary to what some are predicting, it is unlikely he’ll be anyone’s vice presidential candidate either.
Importantly, the two candidates who shot out of Iowa with the Big MoJohn Edwards and John Kerryappeared in the campaign’s waning days to square their own personal stories of heroism and rags-to-riches with where they want to take the nation. For his part, Kerry stressed his Vietnam War and foreign policy credentials and traveled with a man whose life he saved in Southeast Asia. As for Edwards, his life growing up in a working-class family wore well with his pledge to help working-class families who find life incredibly difficult on a myriad of fronts.
In terms of what voters think about when they go to the pollsand this is just an opinionhalf their brain is occupied by policy and half is grounded in an ineffable confidence in the integrity, sincerity and realness of the candidate. New Hampshire in particular has long placed extra emphasis on the character part of the equation. Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark, who avoided Iowa at their own personal peril, have been stationed in the Granite State for weeks now, hoping they won’t be penalized for starting late.
As to where things will ultimately fall, one would guess that Lieberman should soon start working on his concession speech, but Clark’s story is more complicated. He must do well in New Hampshire, or all the work he’s done in organizing states further down the political calendar will have been for naught. Tennessee voters take part in the process when they vote in their Feb. 10 presidential primary. Because so many variables are at work, and each variable bounces off other variables, causing yet more variables to react weirdly, politics is ultimately, like the weather, grounded in Chaos Theory. It would be insane, if not impossible, to predict who will still be alive when Tennessee voters go to the polls, but at this juncture it appears we might yet have a fight on our hands.
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