Who's Looking Good in Iowa

The state's caucus may be a beauty contest, but it's sure to start winnowing out the pretenders

The ever-unpredictable Iowa caucuses are just days away, and only a fool would predict (a) the results or (b) the impact the results will have on the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary or subsequent showdowns.

So here are one fool's thoughts: First the facts. The latest Reuters/MSNBC/Zogby tracking poll (Jan. 9-11) shows Howard Dean in the lead in Iowa with 26%, followed closely by Dick Gephardt at 23%. Dean's narrow lead seems to be holding up despite a barrage of attacks from the also-rans. The second-tier contenders are John Kerry (16%) and John Edwards (12%). The rest of the pack is either boycotting Iowa (Wesley Clark, Joe Lieberman) or stuck in a snowdrift (Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley Braun).

Iowa polls are manna for the political mavens, but the caucus is going to be won with turnout. The candidate with the best grassroots get-out-the-vote effort often pulls through.

Gephardt, the longtime labor ally, has a powerful union-driven machine. Dean, the tough-talking insurgent, has inspired a new generation of liberal activists. And Kerry, the former front-runner now fighting for survival, has a good chunk of the party Establishment in the Hawkeye State. Edwards, the populist millionaire lawyer, has "the buzz" and the endorsement of the only paper that counts in Iowa Democratic politics, the Des Moines Register.


  Winning Iowa will be about more than getting the most votes in the caucus' "beauty contest," however. It's about perceptions. And here are mine, at least one week before the primary:

Gephardt needs to win, or he's out. He's running at 4% in New Hampshire in the latest American Research Group tracking poll. Unless he gets a big boost from an Iowa victory, he'll run out of steam and money within two weeks.

Kerry needs a strong third-place showing just to continue as a viable candidate. A stunning come-from-behind victory or a strong second-place finish (ahead of Gephardt) would give the Massachusetts senator enough momentum to allow him to compete with Clark for runner-up in New Hampshire. But Kerry has little support after New Hampshire and realistically needs to win there to have any chance of winning of the nomination. Without "Big Mo," Kerry will soon be toast. Do you believe in miracles, John Kerry?


  Dean, the new front-runner, needs a win to create an aura of invincibility. He won't be fatally injured by losing to Gephardt in Iowa, but such an outcome could open the door to Clark, who has moved into second in New Hampshire, and Gephardt. In the unlikely event of a Kerry win in Iowa, all bets are off.

Edwards -- the darling of reporters who desperately want a dark-horse to emerge from the pack -- needs to finish third in Iowa. Such a "better-than-expected" outcome would create momentum that, he hopes, would vault him by Clark, Kerry, and Lieberman in New Hampshire.

Sound unlikely? It has happened before. In 1984, Gary Hart was the "better-than-expected" finisher in Iowa, and he ended up whomping heavy favorite Walter Mondale in New Hampshire. The bad news for Edwards: He doesn't have a strong nationwide organization. Hart didn't either, and he ultimately lost the nomination battle to Mondale. But Edwards does have a fallback scenario: A victory in the make-or-break South Carolina primary on Feb. 3.


  Clark, the retired general, has already benefited by his decision to skip Iowa. His support has doubled in New Hampshire, and he has passed Kerry, the well-known senator from a neighboring state. As odd as it sounds, Clark would benefit the most from a decisive Dean victory in Iowa that would effectively eliminate Kerry, Gephardt, and Edwards from the race. Then Clark could fashion himself as the slightly more moderate and distinctly more electable alternative.

Clark is trying to summon up the old John McCain magic in New Hampshire. McCain, you will recall, skipped Iowa in the 2000 Republican contest and then clobbered front-runner George W. Bush in the Granite State. Few pundits predicted McCain's surge then. Few are predicting a Clark victory now. Stranger things have happened.

That leaves Lieberman, the 2000 Vice-Presidential candidate and the sole candidate running as a Bill Clinton-style New Democrat. Poorly organized, he decided to skip Iowa to concentrate on a last stand in New Hampshire. He has inched up into a tie for third with Kerry.

He'll have to do a lot better than that. Nobody who finishes seventh in Iowa and third or fourth in New Hampshire is going to win the nomination in 2004. Unless Edwards and Kerry tank in Iowa -- and Clark self-destructs the next week in the Granite State -- Lieberman will be out of contention before the end of January.

In a week, it'll all be over but the spinning. Or will it be just beginning?

Richard S. Dunham

Kerry's Woman Problem

Senator John Kerry is targeting female voters as he tries to regain the lead in New Hampshire that he lost months ago to former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. Kerry boasts the backing of New Hampshire's, leading Democratic woman, former Governor Jeanne Shaheen.

However, independent pollster Dick Bennett thinks Kerry's claims that he wouldn't send voters' children to fight in the Middle East have backfired among women who saw one Kerry ad. According to the pollster, some women he surveyed noted that Kerry had voted to authorize President Bush to use force in Iraq. "It just turned women off," says Bennett, president of the American Research Group. His tracking polls show Kerry slipping among women, while Clark's share of their vote has gone up from 7% to 13%.

Richard S. Dunham

Gephardt's Bush Problem

Dick Gephardt took a lonely stand 15 months ago by rallying around President Bush's call to arms in Iraq. As Michael Crowley of The New Republic explains in a detailed endorsement of Gephardt's quest for the White House, he's still paying a political price for that break with Democrat Party orthodoxy:

"In October 2002...he stood with George W. Bush in the White House Rose Garden, the first Democratic Party leader to embrace the president's war resolution. Horrified liberals questioned the sincerity of this sudden conversion.... Ultimately, however, there's no better evidence of Gephardt's sincerity on Iraq than his brave vote this fall for Bush's $87 billion Iraq appropriations bill. At a moment when every party pollster and interest group said support for the bill was political suicide, Gephardt -- unlike John Edwards, John Kerry, Howard Dean, or Wesley Clark -- supported it nonetheless. Doing so undoubtedly hurt him in dovish Iowa and may have cost him some desperately needed union endorsements. But the bravery and principle of his stand was nothing less than, well, presidential."

Now, with his political future at stake, Gephardt faces another tough choice. If he doesn't win the Jan. 19 party caucus in Iowa, his campaign is likely over. And even if he wins in Iowa, he'll head straight into a bigger and tougher battle with well-prepared rivals in the seven-state Feb. 3 primaries.

What to do? He needs labor support next week to survive, and working-class Democrats have been supportive of the war. Yet, he'll have to differentiate himself from Bush and the rest of the Democratic field if he's to ultimately prevail.


  So, Gephardt now is searching for a way to take the White House to task for its handling of the war, without repudiating his own support for the war resolution and the money to fund it. In a Jan. 13 speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, in New York, Gephardt found fault not with the idea of war itself, but rather with Bush's prosecution of it:

"There has been a lot of focus in this campaign on my support for President Bush in the days after September 11. And yes, I supported the congressional resolution that gave President Bush the authority to act in Iraq, even as I urged him to seek multilateral support through the U.N..

"I don't apologize for that, and I'm not sorry that Saddam Hussein is gone. But the burden of proof for a failed foreign policy -- the presumption of guilt for a deadly quagmire in the sands of Iraq, with no exit strategy and scant international support -- does not rest with those who supported it, on good faith and with America's security at heart.

"No, it is the Bush Administration itself that bungled the debate at the U.N., fumbled the U.N.-supervised weapons inspections, failed to build a coalition to help our soldiers, and now has no apparent plan to bring safety and democracy to the Iraqi people."


  It's a difficult balancing act. Gephardt certainly deserves credit for sticking with a position unpopular with many rank-and-file party members. And his promise to help rebuild frayed relations with "major allies" such as France, Germany, and Russia may help pull in enough centrist voters, suspicious of Bush and leery of Howard Dean, to survive Iowa. But should he actually win the nomination, he may find the balance hard to sustain.

The main problem is that despite the heat of his rhetoric, Gephardt doesn't really find fault with Bush in too many places, and he offers precious little insight into what he would have done differently. In fact, the emotional peak of the speech, before a packed auditorium, occurred when Gephardt spoke about the need to fight terror. His voice rose as he declared that the U.S. must never allow weapons of mass destruction to be used against it.

For a moment, it seemed to me that his heart might actually be back in the Rose Garden, where he stood side by side with President Bush. During the question-and-answer session, Gephardt wouldn't really say that the Bush doctrine of preemptive warfare was wrong. Rather, he said the U.S. shouldn't be so obvious about declaring it as a backbone of its policy. And later he told a reporter that the U.S. was safer now that Saddam had been captured. When you look past the speech's more strident passages, you find the Gephardt you would expect: moderate in tone, willing to work with the opposition, steady and consistent over time. Those are admirable qualities, but they might work against him as he takes on a popular incumbent President. Steve Rosenbush in New York

Media Bias: Right or Left?

Is media coverage of politics biased? You bet -- at least that's what Americans say in a new Pew Research Center Poll. Which way you think the media tilts depends on your ideology, though.

A majority of self-described Democratic liberals in the poll say the lean is to the right, while most Republican conservatives feel the left has the press in the bag. Independents, not surprisingly, are split down the middle, with 16% perceiving a Democratic bias, 15% a GOP leaning, and 43% no media ideology at all.

Republican conservatives are the most worked up about perceived press prejudice. Seventy-two percent of them see a bias, and by 47% to 8%, they say it's liberal. Democratic liberals are the mirror image: 66% see a bias, and by 36% to 11%, they say news outlets are in the pockets of powerful interests on the right. Partisans with moderate political views are slightly less inclined to point fingers at press coverage.

Perceptions of media bias also depend on the main source of news. Voters who get most of their political information from the Fox News Channel and radio are most convinced of a liberal media conspiracy, the poll found, while those who depend on the Internet or network TV news are more inclined to see conservative domination of the media. CNN viewers split evenly: They're most likely to see political coverage as fair and balanced.

Richard S. Dunham

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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