How the Earth Moved in Iowa

Kerry's and Edwards' break from the pack carries deep lessons for all the Dems about negative campaigning and electability

By Richard S. Dunham

Let's push the restart button on the 2004 Democratic Presidential contest. The results from Iowa are in, and the Pundit Elite has scrambled egg on its collective face. The runaway tandem victories of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and North Carolina Senator John Edwards mark one of the most remarkable, rapid turnaround stories in American political history. Likewise, the dual collapse of the heavily favored front-runners, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean and 1988 Iowa caucus winner Dick Gephardt, provide some important lessons for all of the 2004 candidates.

The Iowa stunner should make the always volatile New Hampshire primary more unpredictable than ever. And don't believe any gas-bag prognosticator who claims to know which way the flinty and contrarian Yankee voters will go on Jan. 27. One can only guess how many dramatic twists and turns will be seen in the coming days.

Here are a few observations on the first-in-the-nation caucus:

The Winners:

Kerry. He was all but written off a few weeks ago, but he came from behind with incredible discipline and a little good luck. He performed well in debates, ran excellent TV ads highlighting the problems of average people, and honed his campaign message to focus on populist themes that decried "Benedict Arnold companies" and the "creed of greed" fostered by President Bush. Liberal Democrats loved it -- and they switched en masse from Dean to Kerry.

Edwards. The charismatic trial lawyer came out of nowhere. In a state where nearly a quarter of caucus-goers see at least one of the candidates live and in person, Edwards gives the best stump speech in America today -- probably tops since the heyday of conservative populist Pat Buchanan and his "peasants with pitchforks."

Iowa voters repeatedly cited Edwards' upbeat message of "One America," his refusal to get caught in the muck and mire of negative politics, and his polished performance in the final two TV debates. A well-timed endorsement from the Des Moines Register didn't hurt, either. Edwards is short of money and organization in coming states (outside of his native South Carolina), but he has, in the words of the first President Bush, "Big Mo."

Al Sharpton. Although the New York civil-rights activist got less than 1% of the Iowa vote, Sharpton was a winner in one respect: He now has five major white candidates running against him in South Carolina, where up to half of the primary electorate is African American. It's not inconceivable that Sharpton could win, or place near the top of the pack, in South Carolina. That could make him a power broker in a divided convention. Unlikely, but possible.

The Losers:

Gephardt. He lost. Badly. He withdrew from the race on caucus night. It's over.

Dean. How did the front-runner fail? Let us count the ways. Voters didn't like his attack ads, and they didn't like his diffident performance in recent debates. Kerry and Edwards crushed him on college campuses and among liberals. These were supposed to represent Dean's base, the young and the restless.

Dean has time to rebound -- and he still has the most money and the deepest national organization. But with the other candidates echoing his rhetoric, Dean has to come up with a way to convince Democrats in the other 49 states that he's the right messenger to carry his popular message.

Wesley Clark. The retired general desperately wanted a mano a mano showdown with Dean in New Hampshire. But Kerry and Edwards got in the way of the Clark strategists' dream. Now it's a free-for-all. Yes, Clark has surged into contention with some effective grassroots campaigning in New Hampshire. But the earth moved on Jan. 19. Now he's going to have to show why he's the best of a big pack, not the better of two finalists.

The Iowa results left two key messages to take away: Voters, at least Democrats in Iowa, don't like negative campaigning, and more important, they understand that electability matters. Iowans punished Dean and Gephardt mercilessly for their negativity even as the Kerry and Clark camps snipe in New Hampshire. Will Granite State voters react with similar disgust?

We'll see soon enough. In the meantime, a pre-caucus poll in the Des Moines Register found that a strong majority of Democrats were far more interested in finding a candidate who could beat George Bush than one who reflected their views on issues.

It explains why Kerry, who voted to authorize war in Iraq, could win in a state where a vast majority of Democrats opposed the invasion. Indeed, Edwards always gets loud applause when he proclaims he can beat Bush all over the country, including his native South. And Kerry fires up the faithful by asserting that, unlike the President, "I know something about aircraft carriers." His macho riff continues: "I have three words for him I know he understands: Bring it on!"

That's about as good a way as any to prepare for the mortal political combat to come. Bring it on!

Dunham is a White House correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau

Edited by Beth Belton

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