The logic of the presidential nominating process completely escapes rationalization, yet, like the farm truck held together by bailing wire and duct tape, it does the job just fine.
The 2004 version begins with the Iowa caucus on Jan. 19, a day so complicated and bizarre that few political operatives across the country fully understand how the whole thing works. Democrats taking part in the caucus only make matters stranger. Political polls have consistently shown Iowa Democrats to be more liberal than their counterparts from other states. If you’re a candidate in Iowa, you focus on two things: finishing in the top three and exceeding expectations. Then it’s on to New Hampshire.
The Jan. 27 primary there is the effective death sentence for many of the candidates who will have simply hung on for their dear lives after Iowa. Typically, the primary leaves one serious candidate and a challenger to make life difficult for him. Quite often, the winner of the New Hampshire primary goes on to receive the nomination. But sometimes simply exceeding expectations is enough to keep a candidacy alive.
Then, on Feb. 3, the utter unpredictability of South Carolina will take its toll. Other states holding contests on that day include Missouri and Arizona. Then, a week later, on Feb. 10, Tennessee and Virginia will host their events. That our state legislature moved us so far up in the election calendar is, for us political hacks who spend way too much time talking about this stuff, a plus. In all likelihood, things will be pretty well settled by the time Feb. 10 rolls around, but there may still be enough of a fight raging that we at least get to watch it sputter out nearby.
Last year, when our primary was held in March, we were little more than an afterthought. But state Democratic Party officials say that with the move forward, a few candidates are making phone calls, paying visits, lining up support. A week ago, North Carolina darling John Edwards blew though town long enough to get his latest cash advance from the trial lawyer crowd. Florida Sen. Bob Graham, in his starring role as the proverbial conservative Southerner, will be the featured speaker at the Tennessee Democratic Party’s annual Jackson Day Dinner. “A number of other presidential campaigns are sending surrogates to that event,” says party spokesman Zac Wright.
Candidate Dick Gephardt has been endorsed by Tennessee Congressmen Bart Gordon and John Tanner, while Congressman Harold Ford Jr. has endorsed Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. A spokesman for Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell says “he’s out of the endorsement game,” and the most important endorser of all, Gov. Phil Bredesen, has yet to say a word.
Meanwhile, Al Gore is silent.
Those who are most happy at the prospect of presidential activity in Tennessee are account reps for TV stations who love selling all those negative political ads, unemployed college graduates willing to work insane hours on a political campaign for little or no money, and the owners of the Loews Vanderbilt Plaza, the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and the downtown Knoxville Holiday Inn. There, in a nutshell, is where most of the campaign spending in Tennessee will go.
Who’s the Scene’s horse at this point in the race?
Well, we have a certain amount of respect for Howard Dean, a Vermont intellectual singing a populist tune, for getting so far on so little. Despite the carping that he has morphed from a pro-business governor of Vermont into one of the more liberal-seeming candidates in the pack, he’s wisely adhering to Richard Nixon’s technique for becoming president, only in reverse. “First you run to the right,” Nixon said. “Then you run back to the center.”
Florida’s Graham will probably pick up the Tennesseans who are just more comfortable with a Southerner than a Yankee. Gephardt may pick up some labor votes and friends of Tanner and Gordon. Kerry will find supportive veterans and others impressed by his thoughtfulness. Joe Lieberman can say he knows Gore. Edwards must be counting on the aforementioned lawyer crowdand housewives who like his hair.
George Bush is planning to raiseand spend$200 million by the time the parties hold their conventions. In our judgment, this is insane. But, as an indication of his popularity, it’s also impressive; he’s looking virtually impregnable. But chaos theory extends to politics, and with the flap of a butterfly’s wings somewhere in South America, the candidates’ fortunes could change overnight. Which makes it such a beautiful game.
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