By Richard S. Dunham John Kerry soared, Joe Lieberman scored, Wes Clark fumbled, Howard Dean continued to tumble, and Al Sharpton couldn't tell the difference between the Federal Reserve Board and the International Monetary Fund. Those are the headlines from the final debate before the pivotal Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary.
The debate at St. Anselm College in Goffstown on Jan. 22, co-sponsored by ABC, Fox, Manchester's WMUR-TV, and the Manchester Union-Leader, seems likely to solidify Kerry as the odds-on favorite in the nation's first Presidential primary. The Massachusetts senator was poised and forceful in his responses. He made a convincing case for why Democrats should believe he'd be a strong challenger to President Bush. What's more, with the candidates on their best behavior (no direct personal attacks), Kerry escaped unscathed from the two-hour encounter.
DOUBLE NEGATIVES. Not so Dean. The former Vermont governor was sick and very tired, and it showed. As a result, he was not his usual glib self. Time and again, Kerry and North Carolina Senator John Edwards hit home runs while answering questions. Dean could only hit singles.
A lackluster performance like that won't be enough to turn around Dean's campaign, which has dropped precipitously in the three days since his disappointing third-place finish in Iowa and his bizarre, primal-scream concession speech on caucus night. A Jan. 20-22 tracking poll by the American Research Group found Dean slipping into third place behind Kerry (31%) and retired General Wesley Clark (20%). At 18%, Dean's support level means he has lost nearly half of his backers in a week. His negative ratings have doubled to 30% during the same time period. Public perceptions of Kerry are now overwhelmingly favorable: 77% positive and only 14% negative in the ARG poll
Clark's tepid debate performance isn't likely to help his cause much either. Kerry was much tougher and more articulate on defense matters, and Clark, the political newcomer, sounded too much like a career pol as he tried to evade some pointed questions, particularly on the sensitive subject of abortion.
"A BAD NAME." He probably lost points with centrists when he refused to criticize film director Michael Moore, a supporter, for labeling President Bush a Vietnam War deserter. "I don't know if this is supported by the facts," Clark answered. He later added: "He's not the only person who said that."
The back-of-the-pack duo of Edwards and Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman both helped their longshot causes. Edwards proved to be likable and knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects. The one-term senator with a populist streak could well take some "outsider" votes from Dean and Clark.
Lieberman, currently running a poor fifth in the polls, will likely steal a few moderate and independent voters from Clark with his impassioned hawkishness and unapologetic centrism. While the rest of the pack criticized Bush's Iraq invasion, Lieberman won scattered applause for justifying the attack. "We are safer with Saddam Hussein in prison than in power," Lieberman said. He added that the President "has given a bad name to a just war" by failing to plan adequately for its aftermath.
UNLIKELY PRESDIDENTS. Sharpton was little more than comic relief at the debate. His best zingers were aimed at his nemesis Dean. But he's likely to be remembered most for botching a question about his preference for chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. After the New York civil rights activist gave a windy answer about the IMF, debate panelist Peter Jennings of ABC News reminded him that the question was about the Fed.
Sharpton's rambling response: "I would be looking for someone that would set standards in this country, in terms of our banking, our -- in how government regulates the Federal Reserve as we see it under Greenspan, that we would not be protecting the big businesses. We would not be protecting banking interests in a way that would not, in my judgment, lead toward mass employment, mass development, and mass production. I think that -- would I replace Greenspan? Probably. Do I have a name? No."
Clear as mud, no? But we're not likely to see a President Sharpton in 2004. And unless he can change things in a hurry, America isn't headed for a President Dean, either. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau