Campaign Journal: Full Circle

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  Dateline: January 24, Nashua, New Hampshire

IT’S SATURDAY EVENING, three days before the New Hampshire primary, and a healthy chunk of the national media is in Manchester attending a discussion about politics and the press with comedian Jon Stewart. I was headed there, too, but guilt pulled me off the turnpike and onto Main Street in Nashua to watch a town-hall meeting with Joe Lieberman instead. Among campaign reporters, it is so uncool to attend Lieberman events that, when I show up at the Jon Stewart party later tonight, I find myself practically apologizing for wasting my time with him.

Lieberman has a unique strategy for winning the Democratic primaryignoring the Democratic vote. Well, almost. These days, Lieberman is targeting independents all but exclusively. He talks about John McCain more than he talks about Bill Clinton. “John McCain and Ihave I mentioned him enough?” he jokes in Nashua. His campaign’s final piece of direct mail in New Hampshire goes out to 70,000 independents. You have to look hard at the two-sided flyer to learn that Lieberman is, in fact, a Democrat. In big, block letters it announces that “independents can vote in the democratic primary,” “you can make a difference for our country,” and “you can make a difference by supporting Joe Lieberman.” It is left to a smaller subheadline to note that Lieberman is “The one Democrat who every day has leveled with voters”the only explicit mention of his party affiliation anywhere on the flyer. By contrast, it refers to McCain three times and Lieberman’s nearly 300 endorsements from New Hampshire independents twice. A featured quote from Greg Smith, former New Hampshire attorney general and “lifelong Independent” (mentioned twice by name in the mailer) declares, “I don’t vote for the party, I vote for the person.”

One peculiarity of trying to cobble together a coalition from people who don’t vote by party is that the people who attend Lieberman’s events are more quirky and unpredictable than the staid, establishment Democrats who pack Kerry’s events or the Paul Wolfowitz-hating liberals who swoon for Wesley Clark. For starters, Lieberman’s town-hall meetings are the only ones that include healthy sprinklings of GOP voters. As I wait for him to arrive in Nashua, I listen to two Republicans talk about the choice before them. “He’s the most Republican of the Democrats,” says one. His friend responds that he is debating three options on Tuesday: voting for Bush “to reward him,” voting for Howard Dean “to help throw the election” to Bush by offering up the weakest Democratic alternative, or voting for Lieberman because, in the event that Bush loses, he could tolerate him as president.

Lieberman also seems to attract an inordinate number of voters with attitudes and people with pet issues, who, if Lieberman were president, I suspect he would not spend much time on. (For example, one voter complains to the senator about car insurance.) These people occasionally make Lieberman’s town-hall meetings compelling theater. His first question in Nashua is from a visibly agitated woman who has apparently seen an ad on television that has made her furious. She leaves the crowd of about 500 people that rings Lieberman and walks right into the open space where he stands. ”You knew about Al Qaeda, and you did nothing about it!” she charges, pointing a finger. It turns out the ad in question is actually a Lieberman commercial, which boasts that the senator knew about Al Qaeda before Bush ever heard of the group. Lieberman tries to explain that he knew Al Qaeda was a threat but didn’t have any foreknowledge of the September 11 attacks, but this only angers her more. ”How did you know about Al Qaeda?” she asks. ”What ties do you have to them?”

Despite such bumps, Lieberman is a pro in these settings, much better than his canned, parody-like speechifying before ballroom audiences. In Nashua, some 200 voters who couldn’t fit in the main room spilled two floors down a double staircase into a lobby. It was the first time in this campaign that his aides had to deal with an overflow crowd. And, while the polls are contradictory, some do show Lieberman ticking upward, a fact that is e-mailed to reporters by Lieberman aides almost hourly. New Hampshire voters seem to be giving Lieberman a second look. In three days, we’ll find out if they like him any more than they did at first.

 

Dateline: January 25, Hampton, New Hampshire

IF LIEBERMAN’S EVENTS are an extension of the quaint, local primary campaign of the last year, in which candidates expose themselves to the press and risk angry tete-a-tetes with locals, John Kerry’s feel like a harbinger of the impersonal tarmac campaign to come. His Sunday events are huge. Between 2,000 and 3,000 people show up to see him in Nashua. I catch up with him later in the seacoast town of Hampton. The event takes place in a firehouse with hoses stacked on one side, firemen’s helmets on the other. Giant banners reading VETERANS FOR KERRY and FIREFIGHTERS FOR KERRY hang on the wall. Kerry is joined onstage by Harold Schaitberger, president of the national firefighters’ union, the only major labor organization backing Kerry. Schaitberger’s endorsement now seems like a very wise gamble.

At Kerry’s events, the press is now sealed off in its own pen at the back of the room, no longer allowed to roam free; when the event ends, staffers block reporters from approaching the candidate. The plan, Kerry aides say over the weekend, is to sit on his new lead, run out the clock, and deliver a victory that forces his rivals out of the race. “We need to win this thing so big that we settle it Tuesday,” announces a woman who warms up the crowd as we wait for Kerry.

Though he has only surged in the last couple of weeks, Kerry has shifted completely into front-runner mode, ignoring his primary rivals and saving all his fire for Bush. ”We’re here to mark the beginning of the end of the Bush presidency,” he says upon taking the stage. Instead of talking about special interests, he starts his stump speech with foreign policya sign that pandering to liberals is out and talking tough is in.

For all the general-election staginess of the event, Kerry does take questions from the crowd, which provides a moment or two of spontaneity. Like all seasoned politicians, Kerry tries to take any question and answer it with one of the key messages from his stump speech. The more obscure the question, the harder it is for a candidate to do this, and Kerry’s very first question is plenty obscure. It’s one of those setups from a supporter who thinks he is helping his candidate even as he’s steering him into trouble. ”I think it’s unfair that, as a New Englander, people often say that you won’t resonate with the key Democratic constituencies around the country,” a man tells Kerry. He suggests that the Massachusetts senator demonstrate his broad appeal by explaining the importance of the letter X on his baseball cap. At first, Kerry is confused. ”The importance of... the Latinthe ten?” he asks. The man clarifies that he means Malcolm X, which hardly makes things any easier for Kerry. His challenge now is to move from the deep water of radical black politics to the island safety of one of his campaign slogans.

His first attempt is aborted. ”I’ll tell you the importance of Malcolm X,” he begins. ”I was profoundly impacted by the biography of Malcolm X” he is interrupted by a loud noise. He makes a joke about it, saving himself from what seemed like a rhetorical drift in the pro-Malcolm X direction. He pauses and reconsiders the issue. ”I think that he represented the anger and thus the frustration that come from the bias, discrimination, and poverty that he lived and saw in the country,” he explains. ”I think it represented an extreme at that time. But an extreme that was a reaction to the lack of the institutional response to some of the needs that had been staring us in the face for a long, long period of time.” He then takes a detour into Robert Kennedy’s travels through Appalachia in the 1960s before finishing up by tying the frustration people felt in the ‘60s to the frustration being felt today with the Bush administration. “We need a political process,” he says, finally confident he is reaching safe harbor, “that keeps faith with those real concerns that stare us in the face and not a political process that is there for the benefit of Halliburton, and drug companies, and powerful people who distort the agenda of the nation. That’s at the center of what this race is about.” Kerry has managed to jump from Malcolm X to campaign boilerplate about special interests in just three moves. Not bad.

  

Dateline: January 26, Durham, New Hampshire

Almost one year ago, I watched Howard Dean, John Edwards, and a representative for John Kerry make their pitches to a small crowd of voters at the Masonic Temple in Indianola, Iowa. It was the first time I had watched any of the Democratic presidential candidates on the stump. Edwards presented himself as a middle-of-the-road outsider who had enough experience in Washington to know what is wrong with it but not enough to have become captive to it. Dean pitched himself as a bolderand, yes, angrieroutsider. The Kerry surrogate made just one argument: National security would dominate the race in 2004, and therefore Kerry, a veteran, was the only Democrat who could beat Bush.

A year later, and we’re back almost exactly where we started. The race seems to be coming down to two outsiders offering a mix of personality and reform and one establishment candidate running on the fact that he served two tours in Vietnam. With Kerry playing the role of the front-runner coasting to victory, I spent the Monday before Election Day with the outsiders.

The polls today show that Dean is quickly winning back voters who abandoned him after the Iowa debacle, but I can’t sense any such enthusiasm at an afternoon event at the University of New Hampshire. There are about 600 supporters in the room, mostly college kids and their professors. One-quarter or more of the attendees don’t participate in the chants being organized from the stage as we wait for Dean to arrive. (My favorite: “We got to beat back the corporate attack! We got to beat, beat back that corporate attack!”) Dean is an hour late, and a few of the students exit. ”See ya later,” one says to a friend. “I got to go write a paper.”

But there are also signs that Dean’s campaign is more tightly organized here than it was in Iowa. Every supporter who enters the room is asked to fill out a short volunteer form with his or her name and address on it. In Iowa, the campaign called its get-out-the-vote operation the “perfect storm.” Here, there’s a more serious-sounding “Volunteer Assignment Headquarters” set up to recruit supporters for last-minute phone-banking and canvassing. The emcee repeatedly announces that a shuttle bus will drive voters from the campus to the polls every 15 minutes tomorrow.

When Dean arrives, he is with his wife, Judy, who is continuing to campaign with him to help rehabilitate his loner image. She spends about 30 seconds shyly introducing Dean before retreating to the corner of the stage. After the event, Dean’s fans treat her like a rock star, crushing around her for autographs. She seems flattered and bewildered by the attention. When I ask her how she’s enjoying life on the trail, she says candidly, “I’m kind of liking it, actually.” The emphasis is on “kind of.”

Like Lieberman, Dean is trying to don the mantle of John McCain. When he talks about his issues, it’s now in terms of what they say about his character, specifically the fact that he “stands up for what he believes.” As for his temperament, Dean is regaining some of his bite now that the memory of the scream speech is fading. But he keeps his emotions under control. When a Lyndon LaRouche heckler yells that Dean is owned by George Soros, Dean resists the temptation to tear the guy’s head off. “Not likely,” he responds sarcastically before continuing his speech.

It’s already a cliche, but conversations with voters at every stop return to the issue of who can beat Bush. It’s as if a year of political coverage insisting that Democrats were looking for an angry, message candidate to satisfy their partisan id has been proved wrong overnight. A lot of scrutiny is being given to even the most tangential questions about electability. “People who are usually very thoughtful are asking questions like, `What is the deal with Teresa Heinz? Where is Doctor Steinberg?’” says Judy Spiller, who is checking out Dean in Durham. “It’s as if we’ve been co-opted by the most superficial aspects of the political system we all hate. But we have to find someone who can out-personality George Bush.” She’s trying to decide between Kerry and Dean.

After the event, I follow the Deans out the door. I’ve shadowed Dean as he worked crowds maybe a dozen times over the last year. Since Iowa, he has been different. As he signs autographs and shakes hands along one of his final New Hampshire rope-lines, he asks for votes with the plaintive urgency of a man whose fate is in the hands of people he doesn’t quite trust because they have already let him down once. Dean looks one man in the eyes and clenches his hands. “Don’t forget to vote tomorrow,” he says. “I need your help.” Then Dean glances over at his wife and looks back at the man. “We need your help.”

A few hours later, I catch up with John Edwards at a rally in Manchester. If Dean’s events sometimes look like the bar scene from Star Wars, Edwards’s traveling show has the feel of an Abercrombie & Fitch fashion shoot. Instead of chants about corporate attacks by an angry bearded man in a union shirt, the Edwards event features the warm and fuzzy visuals of eight rows of smartly dressed Granite State voters waving small American flags. A volunteer in a white button-down shirt leads them in singing, “Yes, oh yes, John is the best!” and “Vote for Edwards, vote, vote for Edwards.” It has a very 1950s-era feel to it.

 

The contrast between Dean and Edwards could hardly be more clearone seems unscripted; the other, rehearsed to an almost disconcerting perfection. In both cases, it’s both a strength and a liability. Whatever his failings, many people are attracted to Dean because he seems authentic and speaks his mind. But, when you live by off-the-cuff remarks, you can die by them, too. One second, you’re the straight-talking doctor telling hard truths; the next, you’re wailing like a pirate in front of millions of Americans. Similarly, Edwards’s gift is that he is a natural politician who connects with voters. But, watching him deliver his theatrical, thoroughly engrossing stump speech on stage at the Palace Theatre, I can’t help but wonder how well he’ll wear. He delivers a polished and inspirational piece of political oratory, but he’s also a politician who has a narrow comfort zone and who hews closely to a script. Even if it is a great script, it can start to seem a little phony after a while.

One of these two men will become the anti-Kerry, an outsider making the case that, far from being a warrior against special interests, the four-term Massachusetts senator is a Washington insider who has shifted his position on a dozen issues and has no record of reform. That’s the way this race started a year ago, and that’s how it will probably finish.

 

Dateline: January 27, Manchester, New Hampshire

ALL DAY, THE exit polls have made it clear that Kerry is winning; the only question is by how much. Dean’s comeback seems to have stalled, and Edwards has slipped back into the Lieberman-Clark pack. When the polls close, Kerry’s margin of twelve points is bigger than anyone predicted all day, destroying the Dean comeback story and erasing Edwards from the next day’s coverage. At the Dean party at the University of Southern New Hampshire, aides are not only spinning their candidate’s disappointing finish, they’re also pre-spinning his performance in the seven states that will vote on February 3Missouri, South Carolina, Arizona, Oklahoma, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Delaware. The Dean campaign has never been confident of its chances in these states minus the momentum of victories in Iowa or New Hampshire. For months, senior aides have instead talked up the importance of the states that vote after themMichigan and Washington (February 7), Maine (February 8), and Wisconsin (February 17). Getting crushed in Iowa and New Hampshire has only made their trepidation about February 3 worse. Still, if there are any takers left, Dean aides are again making the case that their vaunted organization will carry them through. Because Dean already has organizations in all the February 3 states, “We have the luxury of traveling to the states where it makes sense to play based on tonight’s results,” says spokesman Jay Carson.

Team Dean is also quick to make the Clinton analogy. Like the “Comeback Kid” in 1992, Dean aides say a second-place finish here in New Hampshire has resurrected the campaign. “You have to remember,” says Gina Glantz, a top adviser, “he came into this state almost twenty points down, and he came back.” Well, sort of. He lost by twelve points. But the Dean folks argue thatagain, like Clinton in 1992their man still has plenty of time to round up delegates. “Clinton lost ten primaries before he won one,” says Carson, “and we still call him President Clinton.” There are a few problems with the analogy, though. First, Clinton didn’t compete in Iowa in 1992 (all the contenders ceded the state to native son Tom Harkin), so he didn’t have a major defeat under his belt as he went into New Hampshire. Second, Clinton lost the state by only eight points. And, most important, Clinton’s second-place finish showed he could compete in a state outside his regional stronghold. Dean, by contrast, comes from a state that shares a 192-mile-long border with New Hampshire. In 2003, he raised several times more money than Clinton did in 1991, and, unlike Clinton, Dean didn’t play within the spending-caps system that would have limited the amount of money he threw into the two early states. Dean, in other words, had every advantage in Iowa and New Hampshire and still managed to win only his core sliver of one-fifth to one-quarter of the Democratic electorate.

Only a few weeks ago, Dean aides argued that his anticipated wins in Iowa and New Hampshire would effectively end the race. Joe Trippiwho Dean fired this weekoften talked about how any candidate whose strategy was to “hang out” until February 3 would be steamrolled by Dean’s killer momentum. Now that Kerry has won both states convincingly, aides don’t talk about unstoppable juggernauts but instead remind reporters that the race is a long slog to win the most delegates. ”You’re talking about two states and very few delegates,” says Glantz. “It’s a long way to the nomination.” Glantz has a point. The race looks very different from the perspective of delegates than it does from the perspective of primary victories. Although few have paid attention, the fact is that, thanks to the support of super-delegates (party leaders who can back any candidate), coming out of New Hampshire Dean is actually beating Kerry in delegates won, 113 to 94.

Before, Dean aides argued that they had the only campaign that could fund itself for a long battle into the spring. But it’s becoming clear that Dean actually poured a lot of his $40 million into the two early states to finish off the contest before it started. Glantz insists that the campaign has enough money to carry on. “We raised $1.8 million since Iowa,” she says. “I don’t think they’ll stop pumpingas far as money and as far as enthusiasm....They don’t want to lose faith.” But one Dean fund-raiser I talked to early in the day was holding her hands up in prayer as she received exit polls on her cell phone that showed a closer race with Kerry than the final results. Any loss worse than single digits, she said, would be a tough sell with donors. Nonetheless, Dean aides insist the governor is in the race for the long haul. “You have to kill us to get rid of us,” says Zephyr Teachout, Dean’s Internet guru and the most fervent believer in the Dean revolution. “And this doesn’t do that.” Maybe not. But the revolution has certainly been postponed. Far from being the leader of an insurrection that transforms the Democratic Partyand even the countryDean, like the race itself, has come full circle. Once again, he’s a scrappy and intriguing outsider nipping at the heels of a strongly favored establishment front-runner. It’s as if an entire year of American politics was just one long dream.

This article appeared in the February 9, 2004 issue of the magazine. 

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