Why Kerry won -- and how he could lose
There is a sense in which today's postmortems on Howard Dean's poor finish in Iowa are unanimous. Dean's opponents and critics say that Iowans ultimately rejected Dean because they suddenly worried he would be less "electable" than John Kerry or John Edwards. Dean's supporters and advocates -- and the candidate himself -- say that he was crippled by attacks from the Gephardt campaign, other candidates and the mainstream media.
Yet those two explanations dovetail neatly. If it is true that Dean succumbed to the recent Gephardt assaults -- far milder than whatever barrage Karl Rove plans to launch next fall -- then perhaps he is too vulnerable to win a vicious general election.
The Vermont doctor spent two years and $12 million in the Hawkeye state. He brought in thousands of troops and boasted hundreds more from two powerful public sector unions. His failure to execute under those favorable circumstances -- in an environment where three-quarters of the electorate shared his antiwar viewpoint -- doesn't bode well for his chances in a general election. Having resisted premature judgments about Dean, I have to concede that Iowa offered real evidence against his viability.
And having suggested last June that John Kerry would be one of the strongest Democratic contenders against Bush, I think it's important to remember, after this admirable triumph, what might still go wrong for him. Kerry has numerous strengths, from his experience and intelligence to his military record. In some ways he is the most qualified candidate in this field, especially now that Dick Gephardt has dropped out. But last night he demonstrated again why he could still blow this race.
Suffering from laryngitis, with a concise three-page speech in hand, the victorious Senator nevertheless rambled on for 28 minutes, according to the New York Times. (I can report only that his remarks seemed endless, a feeling evidently shared by his wife, who stood next to him looking bored.) There was nothing wrong with what he said, but it took him far too long to say it. Why didn't Kerry realize that this was his first big chance to present himself to the national audience watching the dramatic Iowa returns, and behave accordingly?
The longer he maunders on, the more he muddles his message. He won Iowans over to his campaign by speaking briefly and taking lots of questions. He needs that kind of discipline if he wants to win.
And if he wants to see a superb victory speech, somebody should show him the videotape of John Edwards, whose remarks were both shorter and more inspiring. Kerry said he had learned much about campaigning in Iowa. He has more to learn. If his momentum carries him through New Hampshire, he will be heading south -- where they don't want to listen to any longwinded Yankee who won't get to the point.
[4:30 p.m. PST, Jan. 20, 2004]