Howard Dean's stumble in Iowa is the story, and the early questions are these:
What does Dean's third-place showing tell us about his vaunted organization, which raised gobs of money, brought more than 3,500 out of state volunteers into Iowa and reportedly had rock-solid "hard count" numbers that would turn back the late John Kerry/John Edwards surge? (And what does it tell us about the reporting that assured us those "hard count" numbers were rock-solid? More on that later.)
Did the sudden surge in establishment endorsements hurt Dean? Hardball host Chris Matthews thinks so, hammering Dean on camera Monday night for having a parade of "yesterday's men" -- Al Gore, Bill Bradley, Tom Harkin, (unofficially at least) Jimmy Carter -- back his supposedly insurgent candidacy. "You'll bring in Fritz Mondale yet," Matthews hectored the newly humbled Dean.The former frontrunner insisted he was happy to have the support of all Democrats -- and he's right, the Democratic nominee will certainly need them in November -- but the timing of Dean's troubles makes it worth wondering if his campaign succeeded in assimilating its new insider support with its outsider message. As well as whether such endorsements matter much in the first place.
Is the Iowa vote best understood as pro-Kerry and Edwards, or just-not-sold-on Dean? New Hampshire will provide the next test case, where Kerry will have to fight Wesley Clark for the war-hero mantle, and southerner John Edwards isn't strong. Don't count Dean out yet. It's worth remembering that neither state's winner is guaranteed the nomination; these two small, white, fairly rural outposts tend to humble early frontrunners, reward mavericks and send losers to the exits, rather than reliably pick the party's ultimate nominees.
The optimistic spin on the Iowa upset is that maybe Democrats have more attractive candidates than the media gave them credit for. At least real Democrats have now spoken, and the race is finally on.