Sunday, January 18, 2004


What in the world is going on in Iowa? Well, it's not called a race for nothing! Despite months of pundits and prognosticators claiming to have divining powers, we come into the day before the Caucuses with a four man dogfight, according to the polls. But why?

Is it because Howard Dean is finally getting chinks in his armor? It's fairly well documented that no matter what the doctor says, his fans cheer wildly, even as his spokepeople go on the offensive to explain the gaffe. For months, I wondered just when the blunders would add up, all the while seeing his poll numbers climb. But it seems the layer of hard core Deaniacs, some of the doctor's support may have been softer than advertised.

One also has to keep in mind that eventhough a good many of Dean voters are just as mad as the doctor, they are not kamikazes. More than anything else, if you hate Bush you want him out of the White House. And it would seem that the trepidation some of us in the Party have felt for quite some time about the doctor's ability to accomplish that task has finally started to spill over to Dean's softer supporters. Have the gaffes and blunders finally reached a critical mass where to ignore them is simply irrational?

A more interesting question is just what is it that's fueling the Kerry bandwagon? I have not written much about my home state senator for quite some time, having essentially written him off. Kerry had been a serious disappointment to me for the past nine or ten months as he ran (to put it mildly) a lackluster campaign. Kerry was someone who I could have embraced, not only for my Baystate connection, but the old Kerry had very idiosyncratic politics which, even though they were not exactly like mine, were comforting to someone like me who tends to view government with two parts intellect and one part heart. I have never been quite comfortable with ideologues of either stripe because most of them have suspended critical thinking, replacing thought with emotion and rigid orthodoxy.

Kerry was the first Democrat I ever voted for (had I not missed the absentee ballot deadline in '94, it would have been Kennedy, despite having consulted to a GOP candidate in the primary that year) and I would have given him strong consideration this year. But when he started playing five sides to the Iraq War vote, he began to lose me. Part of the reason was that I supported the war, but more importantly was that I saw his actions as trying to squirm away from the responsibility for his vote. (A more candid response to the issue would have gone something like this- "Yes, I voted for the war and at the time and based on the information we were given, it seemed to be the right thing to do. Deposing Saddam and liberating Iraq would have also been a compelling reason to take action, but that was not the rationale this President used. Bush misled Congress and the American people and I am angry to have been duped, as are many of my colleagues. Furthermore, this president has failed to adequately plan for a post-war Iraq and countless Americans are now in harm's way with no plan to protect them, to rebuild Iraq or to build international support. I will change that.) And, true to Democratic Primary form, Kerry saw fit to pander to every interest group within the Party. While I understand that this is how the game is played, it was a bit surprising coming from someone who had strayed from Party orthodoxy on many occassions.

But why is Kerry peaking in Iowa now? People are having second thoughts about Dean, as noted above, and undecideds seem to be breaking to Kerry and to Edwards. Part of this could be Kerry's stature as someone people feel has the experience to compete against Bush-Rove. He may also be getting some bounce from his claims that Gephardt and Dean will raise middle class taxes. I am not certain that any one of these factors is what 's actually propelling Kerry to the top of the polls.

Could Iowa be to Edwards what New Hampshire was to Clinton? A second place showing, or perhaps even a strong third, would make Edwards a real player in the Democratic sweepstakes. As much as I waited for Dean's descent and wondered what happened to Kerry, I wondered just when John Edwards would break through (though I had my doubts he would). Edwards has been buoyed both by the Des Moines Register endorsement as well as his appearance above the fray between the other three running in the Hawkeye state. Voters have been constant in their praise of Edwards for running a positive campaign, but praise had not translated to support until recently. The Register endorsement gave Edwards the sort of recognition and support he needed in order to attract some of the fence sitters and pick up some of the soft support from Gephardt and Dean. I have to believe that people liked Edwards and thought about supporting him, but without the institutional support of Kerry or the net support of Dean or Clark, people did not view Edwards as having the weight to run. The endorsement surely changed all that.

Lastly, who has not already written a post mortem for Gephardt? He HAS to win here and no matter what poll you look at and how incorrect it may be, it's hard to believe that tomorrow night he will claim victory. This is a state that he won in 1988, but therein lies the bugaboo. Gephardt ran out of money not too long after Iowa. People are afraid, given his mediocre fundraising, that the same might happen again. Also, it seems that his anti-free trade rhetoric is not winning over Iowans in the way it once did. This is especially confounding to me because given our economic climate anti-free trade arguments should have more traction now. But to an extent the other candidates are also sounding pseudo-protectionist notes, thus taking trade off the table, at least to an extent. Gephardt has not been able to parlay his opposition to NAFTA into support- maybe this is because the other three have backed away from free trade, but the other explanation is that NAFTA is old news. People accept free trade as the status quo. They may not all like it, but they don't really believe it will go away. No matter, Dean has been able to peel off service unions and some industrial unions from Gephardt's base, leaving him with nothing more than old rhetoric, a flawed health care plan and his folksy charm (yeah, I know many of you don't agree with the last one).

Tomorrow night will be interesting, to say the least!


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