By Richard S. Dunham In a New Hampshire primary that has become more a contest of imagery and perceptions than issues, it was an event made in media heaven: Senator John Kerry, looking spiffy and fit in a University of New Hampshire hockey jersey, skated onto the ice at John F. Kennedy Memorial Coliseum in Manchester on Jan. 24, surrounded by a band of adorable children wearing oversized red Kerry-for-President T-shirts.
Then, the Massachusetts senator scored two goals in a scrimmage featuring some retired Boston Bruins players, Hollywood celebrity Denis Leary (a Worcester boy), members of the gold-medal-winning U.S. women's Olympic hockey team, smooth-skating local firefighters, and the best high school players in New Hampshire. Kerry actually lifted a backhand shot high into the net amid the cheers of a capacity crowd. It was the kind of video highlight money can't buy.
And that, to a great extent, is what the New Hampshire primary is all about. In the short week after the Iowa caucuses, candidates try to find ways to close the deal with Granite State voters who've been watching most of them campaign for a year or more. I've been in New Hampshire most of the week. Here are some impressions of the best and the worst of the showdown:
Best stump speech. North Carolina Senator John Edwards, a skilled trial lawyer, invariably wows his audiences with the political equivalent of a closing statement to the jury. While he repeats the same script at every appearance, he makes it appear fresh and new, down to the asides and jokes. Edwards also uses humor well, from self-deprecating quips to sarcastic comments about President Bush. Campaign observers believe that Edwards' communications skills are a major reason why he has moved up from the rear of the pack in the past three weeks.
Best debater. Kerry didn't stand out in the early Presidential debates last year, but he has come on strong in the past month. He has a way of scoring political points with concise explanations of his positions -- or critiques of Bush policies. Kerry's confident performances have been in stark contrast to retired General Wesley Clark's convoluted political answers and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean's inconsistencies.
Most passionate supporters. Even when he was down (and close to out), Dean still packed the rafters with enthusiastic supporters. These Deaniacs are the loudest and most loyal crew of Campaign '04.
Best organized. Kerry's events are meticulously planned. His warmup speakers give heartfelt testimonials and help humanize a candidate long criticized for being aloof. The lighting is good, the sound systems are strong, the sight-lines are clear, and the camera crews are placed in positions to make the rallies seem as photogenic as possible. Kerry's advance folks are pros. Little things like this always help a campaign succeed -- particularly when the nomination battle moves to the general election, where TV images rule.
Most valuable consultant. Veteran Democratic message-meister Bob Shrum has helped Kerry put together a coherent pitch highlighting the senator's work on behalf of the people against powerful interests. It should come as no surprise that rival Edwards has a similar message: "the two Americas." Guess why? Edwards is a former Shrum client.
Favorite targets of the candidates. Bush, of course, is target No. 1. Kerry and Clark, in particular, ridicule his performance aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln with the "Mission Accomplished" banner that hung behind him. (Clark says Bush "pranced" in a flight suit.) Other (un)popular villains include Halliburton, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Vice-President Dick Cheney, Enron, oil companies, insurance companies, HMOs, and Big Business in general. Attacks on Ashcroft and Halliburton always get sustained applause at any Democratic event.
Favorite past Presidents. JFK is the most frequently mentioned hero, by a mile. Other Democratic chief execs cited as role models include Harry Truman, Franklin Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson. But a couple of Republicans -- Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln -- also get kudos.
Best celebrity endorser. Actress Mary Steenburgen, a longtime friend and supporter of Clark, tells a moving story about her mother working in a Little Rock bank alongside Clark's mom. Steenburgen's mother talked about how her daughter wanted to become an actress. Clark's mom said her son wanted to go to West Point. In storybook fashion, both young people lived their dreams and became success stories in their chosen line of work. Runnerup: Actress Glenn Close gives a finely nuanced performance in explaining to star-struck audiences why she's backing her fellow small-town Carolinian, John Edwards.
Worst celebrity endorser. Filmmaker Michael Moore's backing of Clark has been nothing but trouble for the general. Moore's comment (he now says it was a quip) that George W. Bush was a Vietnam War deserter has haunted the Clark campaign in the week leading up to the Jan. 27 New Hampshire vote. Clark has compounded the problem by declining to disavow the remark.
Best dressed. Edwards and the Reverend Al Sharpton take sartorial honors. Edwards, often in an impeccably tailored navy-blue suit with stylish red tie, and Sharpton, in urban-sophisticate garb, always look good. (They can talk, too.)
Worst dressed. Dean jokes about his cheap suits -- and it shows. Still, his rumpled appearance plays to his strengths: that he isn't phony and that he values substance over style.
Best hair. Republicans have a reason for calling John Edwards "the Breck Girl." The North Carolina senator has the most lustrous hair since (for Democrats) John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan (for Republicans). Now, that doesn't get you very far if you don't have much under that helmet. Edwards has plenty of smarts. The big question is whether voters decide he's Atticus Finch or Son of Slick Willie.
Worst hair. Dean (see above).
Best photo op. Campaign '04 has seen no moments as memorable as George H.W. Bush's famous ride in a forklift in 1988 or Gary Hart's macho ax-throwing episode in '84. Not yet, anyway. But Kerry's all-star hockey game stands out.
Worst photo op. Dean's concession "speech" in Iowa, heading up to New Hampshire. Enough said.
No-show candidate. Al Sharpton -- unlike his rival in the civil rights movement, former Presidential contender Jesse Jackson -- has no support in New Hampshire. Sharpton knows it. He left the Granite State after the Jan. 22 debate, and he has no plans to return. He's campaigning in South Carolina.
Best prognosticator. Conservative commentator Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard and Fox News accurately predicted Kerry's Iowa win and Dean's third-place showing. Kristol was a rare sage in a sea of goofy guesses from the self-styled experts. He's either lucky or smart -- or both.
Worst prognosticator. The rest of us. Let's see if my fellow pundits are equally inept in New Hampshire and beyond. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online