The most depressing place to be on the day Saddam Hussein’s statue fell in Baghdad was probably the ballroom of the Wardman Park Marriott in Washington, D.C. This was the site of the largest Democratic campaign event to take place during the three-week war with Iraq, a candidate forum hosted by the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF). If Karl Rove had designed the ideal setting to magnify the stature gap between the wartime president and his Democratic challengers on the day tanks rolled through Baghdad, he could hardly have done better than forcing the viable candidates, such as John Kerry, John Edwards, and Joe Lieberman, to share a stage with Al Sharpton, Dennis Kucinich, and Carol Moseley Braun, and making all of the above genuflect before Marian Wright Edelman, the CDF president and liberal icon whose husband quit the Clinton administration in disgust over welfare reform.
On April 9, this is where the Democratic field found itself. The tone was set when the candidates were introduced one by one, and Sharpton’s name generated the rowdiest applause. Lieberman used his opening statement to praise Saddam’s ouster. “As I saw that statue of Saddam Hussein falling in Baghdad, I could feel the hopes of the children of Iraq for a better life rising,” he said. On my recording of the event, one can just hear the faint sound of a lone pair of hands clapping slowly three times and then abruptly stopping, as if cowed into silence by the obvious lack of enthusiasm in the audience.
Unlike Lieberman, Moseley Braun was unimpressed by the scene in Firdos Square earlier in the day. “If we spent eighty billion dollars to kill Saddam Hussein,” the ex-ambassador to New Zealand explained, “that’s seventy-nine billion dollars too much.” She would rather have seen the money spent on health care and other domestic priorities. Howard Dean echoed Moseley Braun’s lefty isolationist belief that rebuilding Iraq would simply cost too much. (Only Edwards made the obvious point that Democrats could actually be in favor of spending money abroad on Iraq and at home on health care.) Dean then added perhaps the most stunning line from a Democratic candidate during the war: “We should have contained Saddam. Well, we got rid of him. I suppose that’s a good thing.”
IT’S A GOOD THING for Dean and the other Democrats that the CDF cattle call passed with little notice. But, if the media’s impressive ability to pivot quickly from 24-hour coverage of the war to 24-hour coverage of Laci Peterson’s murder is any sign, the Democratic presidential campaign may abruptly emerge from its wartime media blackout when the nine candidates gather May 3 in Columbia, South Carolina, for their first big debate. The format for the evening, 90 minutes split between nine candidates, will only allow for snippets from each of the contenders, but on that day the new contours of the campaign should start to come into focus.
The first postwar question that the Columbia debate will help answer is whether or not Dean remains a force. Until now, Dean has been the darling of Democratic beauty contests, hamming it up and basking in the glow of liberal interest-group cheers, from NARAL Pro-Choice America to the Iowa Federation of Labor to the CDF. But, unlike most of the recent Democratic events, the South Carolina debate will be hosted by ABC News rather than an interest group on the liberal edge of the party. There will be a lot less time for pandering and applause lines.
Dean may also find South Carolina a little outside of his comfort zone. Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, where Dean has spent most of his time campaigning, South Carolina has a Democratic electorate that is 40 percent African American—not a natural constituency for the ex-Vermont governor. The state’s white electorate, meanwhile, is far more conservative than the young volunteers Dean has recruited from the college towns of Iowa City and Hanover. And there’s a huge population of veterans—the state has a dozen military bases—who are presumably more certain than Dean that Saddam’s overthrow is good news.
Dean’s performance in South Carolina and beyond will have a significant ripple effect on the rest of the field. Kerry, whose status as front-runner was undermined during the war when he placed second behind Edwards in the money race, must soon decide if Dean’s candidacy represents a mortal threat or not. Dean’s road to the nomination runs over the carcass of Kerry’s campaign, and, if the governor shows staying power, Kerry will be forced further to the left to dispatch Dean. There’s plenty of ammunition in Dean’s record. He has often bragged that liberals in Vermont opposed him. Dean is proud of his National Rifle Association endorsements; he supports the death penalty for cop-killers and child-murderers (Kerry supports it only for terrorists); and his obsession with a balanced budget in Vermont led him to propose some health care cuts that he might be less proud of these days. “The question is, can [Dean] keep the lefty real estate?” asks a Kerry adviser. “Do liberals suspend their disbelief on this guy for much longer?”
According to Dean aides, his plan is to pivot away from being the antiwar candidate and go back to being the health care candidate, where he started the campaign. But he’ll soon find this to be crowded terrain. By the end of May, Edwards and Kerry will have proposed major health care plans. Dick Gephardt already announced his plan this week and says it will be the cornerstone of his campaign. Just as Kerry is threatened by Dean in Kerry’s must-win state of New Hampshire, Gephardt is threatened by Dean in Gephardt’s must-win state of Iowa. Gephardt’s new health care plan, which expands the kind of coverage currently offered by employers (through a new tax credit) and by the government (through opening up Medicare and the SCHIP program), is similar to what Dean has outlined but may actually more comprehensive—and more expensive—placing Gephardt to the left of Dean on the issue.
The other candidates, especially Lieberman and Edwards, neither of whom is expected to win in Iowa or New Hampshire, seem delighted by the prospect of a titanic battle between Dean and Kerry. “Dean could slay Kerry for us,” says an aide to a rival campaign. Without the burden of having to win in the two early states, both Edwards and Lieberman are elbowing for advantage in what might be called the February 3 strategy. That’s the first primary day after New Hampshire, and, while it originally was to be monopolized by South Carolina, now Arizona and Missouri are also scheduled for that day, with Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Tennessee preparing to move there as well. Aides to both Edwards and Lieberman envisage a strategy where their candidates do respectably in Iowa and New Hampshire but then break out with victories on February 3. Lieberman was an early adopter of Arizona as an important state and has made frequent trips there. He also pushed Oklahoma to move its primary up and recently sent his wife to the state, where she collected almost every important Democratic endorsement. A linchpin of the strategy for Lieberman is that his high name identification and moderate record should serve him well on a day of multistate primaries with diverse Democratic constituencies. However, the plan is also premised on a fat bank account to fund several state campaigns at once, and Lieberman’s fund-raising to date has been abysmal.
The February 3 strategy may actually make more sense for Edwards, the fund- raising champion who, as a Southerner, may be positioned to do well not just in South Carolina, where he has to win, but in the other states that will hold their contests on that day as well. A senior advisor to another campaign scoffs at the idea that Lieberman will appeal to the largely rural voters who go to the polls then: “Lieberman’s got endorsements in Oklahoma, but, when it comes to Oklahoma voters—.” There is a long pause. “Enough said.”
This article originally ran in the March 5, 2003 issue of the magazine.