And the Democratic candidates are rounding the first corner. During the past week the Iowa caucuses winnowed the field while mixing up the Democratic presidential positions.
Today’s New Hampshire primary could well change the dynamics again as different issues come to the fore. Tight-fisted voters in New Hampshire are likely to focus more than Iowans did on the tax and fiscal positions of the candidates.
Going into the contest, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry will leverage his gain in Iowa, where he sprang “from a prospective dropout to a prospective nominee,” as Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College put it. Sen. Kerry successfully played on his role as a hero of the Vietnam War, which is ironic given that he first came to political prominence in the early 1970s as an activist in Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina finished a surprising second in Iowa with a nice-guy approach. The southerner “probably isn’t going to do all that well in New Hampshire,” Pitney said, because Sen. Kerry and Gov. Howard Dean are from New England states bordering New Hampshire. “But he did well enough in Iowa to stay alive to the Southern primaries. If he gets single digits of the vote in New Hampshire, he can still do well in South Carolina” on Feb. 3. “But if he is in single digits in South Carolina, that’s his ticket out of the race.”
Previous front-runner Dean, former governor of Vermont, finished a disappointing third in Iowa, then went on a televised rant that brought up questions of his suitability for the nation’s highest office. “On the bright side for Dean,” Pitney said, “he’s an underdog again. Unfortunately for him, he’s an underdog who has rabies. But it’s still possible to come back. Former President Bush did so in 1988; after finishing a humiliating third in Iowa, he bounced back to win New Hampshire.”
Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, despite support from organized labor, finished fourth in Iowa and dropped out.
Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark didn’t campaign in Iowa, focusing on New Hampshire. “He seems to have peaked because the news from Iowa eclipsed him,” Pitney said. “He’s not rising in New Hampshire in part because there are questions about his quality as a candidate. In Thursday’s debate, he hesitated when asked about his lobbying. A more experienced candidate would have had a more solid answer.”
If Gen. Clark does well in New Hampshire and Sen. Kerry falters, Gen. Clark could take up the anti-Dean mantle. “But if Kerry wins, he not only remains the leader, but becomes the leading anti-Dean candidate; and that leaves out Clark.”
We’ll know better in a week. But soon there should be two or three remaining top-tier Democratic nags. And if no one clearly is in front, California’s March 2 primary could turn out to be the finish line.