A strange sort of optimism in New Hampshire

With the exception of front-runner John Kerry, the Democratic contenders believe that even a third- or fourth-place finish can be a springboard to the big prize.

By Josh Benson

Published January 27, 2004 2:11AM (EST)

John Edwards was speaking in a junior high school gym crammed with supporters and media, and he started off with a kind of apology. Elizabeth, his wife, would have to leave the rally early, he said, to head down the hall and talk to "the hundreds of people who couldn't get in here."

About an hour later, Wesley Clark, speaking not far away at another gym with an almost identical setup -- bleachers, pulled-up basketball backboards, etc. -- seemed equally regretful. "I'm sorry there were 300 people or 500 that couldn't get in," he said.

For the record, there were actually fewer people shut out of the Clark event. But the fact that these trailing candidates are creating fire hazards wherever they go demonstrates that there's a lot more to the picture here than the marquee Kerry vs. Dean event. Because of the unprecedented primary schedule this year, Clark, Edwards and even Joe Lieberman are arousing interest on the ground that isn't necessarily clear from the polls, which generally show John Kerry with a lead and Howard Dean trailing.

The compressed primary calendar, which has seven states holding contests on Feb. 3, has only made things seem more competitive. For the moment, each of the major candidates has hope that he can lose in New Hampshire and still hit the electoral jackpot a week later in the season's first big Tuesday, which features seven contests spread from Delaware and South Carolina in the East to North Dakota, Missouri and Oklahoma in the middle of the country, to New Mexico and Arizona in the Southwest.

That will shift the means of voter outreach dramatically from person-to-person politics to press coverage and television ads. Fair or not, positive "free media" and ad money will come to those who exceed expectations in New Hampshire, and both will be in extremely short supply for those who disappoint.

In other words, what happens among those candidates skirmishing for the runner-up spots Tuesday could turn out to be as important as who wins.

"It looks at this point as if we're going to have at least four if not five candidates continue through Feb. 3," said Simon Rosenberg, a graduate of the Clinton War Room who now heads the centrist New Democrat Network. "And going into a phase where so much depends on momentum, the second- and third- and fourth-place finishes in New Hampshire will be one of the most critical developments of the campaign."

Much of the talk since Iowa has focused on Edwards. A lot of this is due to his delivery, which has made him something of a fashionable candidate for the talking heads, starting with James Carville, who declared after Iowa that Edwards has the best stump speech he's ever heard.

It is an effective speech, and it works in part because Edwards -- who, as we all know, was a trial lawyer -- has a performer's knack for delivering the same speech word-for-word as if it's all something that occurred to him on the spot, and he feels so strongly about it that he wants to share it with everyone in the room. He's talking, as opposed to speechifying, and he has the dramatic hand gestures and easy smile to go with it.

But after he hits his themes about there being "two Americas," one for the wealthy and connected and the other for "the rest," the part that invariably gets the greatest reaction is when Edwards talks about his ability to win. He starts off, as he did in a coffee shop in Laconia Saturday, by talking about how, as a trial lawyer, his better-funded corporate opponents looked down on him. "You know what I did?" he asks. "I beat 'em, I beat 'em, I beat 'em again and I beat 'em again." And when he ran against "the Jesse Helms Republican machine" for Senate in North Carolina? "I beat them too."

He says that he's the candidate who can win "in the East, in the West, in the Midwest, and talking like this" -- he points to his mouth and laughs, as if he's slightly embarrassed about his drawl -- "in the South."

Outside the Soda Shoppe in Laconia Saturday, where Edwards' visit turned a modest diner into a too-close-for-comfort swarm of humanity, a number of undecided voters pronounced themselves delighted with what they saw. "I'm really impressed with his experience and delivery," said Bill Noelte, an auditor for the state of New Hampshire and an independent. "I just really liked what I saw."

And Sunday in Nashua, outside the rally at the junior high school gym, Edwards received testimony from Phil, who is part of a four-man outfit that follows the candidates around the country for the primaries selling victory buttons (and who asked for business reasons that his last name not be used here). Phil said that he could tell early that Edwards was making a big move in Iowa when his buttons started selling at an exponential rate, while Dean's sales were steady and Richard Gephardt's were downright flat. Now, he said, he saw the same thing happening in New Hampshire. "Before we came here, I told the other guys I wanted Edwards," he said. "He's a huge seller. It's impulse buying. It's just like the people who come out and see him make up their mind right there."

While Edwards has gained favor with talking heads, Clark has not. He is highly eloquent talking about military affairs, but when he talks about domestic policy he can come off like a tourist who's taken a Berlitz crash course. This was evident at Thursday's debate in Manchester, and it's resulted in a certain amount of confusion about his positions. Another result came Saturday in a less-than-flattering Washington Post story.

At a heathcare candidate forum at Manchester's Palace Theater, Clark got onstage, stood at a podium and read a speech. Lieberman, who went before him, and Dennis Kucinich, who went afterward, both laid out their own plans without reference to notes, and clearly stopped when they did only because of the imposed time limits.

All this is supposed to have hurt him, and maybe it has among New Hampshire voters. Pollster John Zogby told me he thought Clark was in a "downward spiral."

Yet none of that explains the crowd at the gym at Daniel Webster College Sunday in Nashua, where enthusiastic locals and students clearly hadn't gotten the news yet that Clark had collapsed. In fact, most of them seemed to be there for the sole reason that they thought he was a winner.

U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat who spoke to the crowd before Clark, pretty much summed up the reasoning: "We need a warrior to get rid of [George Bush]."

Again, the fact that Clark may not have mastered many of the issues he'd have to deal with as leader of the free world seemed immaterial to the Democrats and Independents who flocked to see him. His entire case is premised on the notion that he can beat George Bush, and that because of Clark's status as a war-hero general and because of his Arkansas upbringing, he can win in the overwhelmingly red-coded South and West.

He's got a slightly more stern challenge than Edwards, mostly because he skipped Iowa and clearly lost momentum as a result. In recent days, thanks in part to Kerry's and Edwards' gains after Iowa, Clark has lowered expectations. On "Meet the Press" Sunday, when Tim Russert asked him if he expected to win in New Hampshire, Clark flat out said no. ("Not here," to be precise.) But he said he was confident in what would happen after this primary. "We've got an incredibly strong base of support, especially in the South, but all across the country," he said.

The trick for Clark, according to aides, is pretty much to get through New Hampshire without being devastated by a heavier-than-expected defeat.

Even Joe Lieberman, whose campaign has yet to catch on in any demonstrable way, has a scenario that brings his campaign back to life. As his spokesman Jano Cabrera wryly points out, they've already "mastered" the game of keeping expectations low. The thinking is that if he creeps up near the end and gets more votes than any one or two of the other four, he'll be in a position to move on with some strength to the contests that follow.

He's seen a slight uptick in the polls and received endorsements from a couple of local newspapers. He told party activists at the annual 100 Club Dinner that he felt a surge of "Joe-mentum" throughout the state.

Kucinich, the other candidate campaigning here, has a highly devoted but small following, and polls show him with little chance of making an impact. Al Sharpton is campaigning in South Carolina.

Because of all the permutations that are possible here -- who finished where and by how much, and how the media decides to treat everyone's performance relative to their expectations -- no one is quite sure how to proceed as far as laying the groundwork in the states to come.

The jockeying on that front has begun, but it's hard to follow. The Edwards campaign says it has a bunch of volunteers up and running in South Carolina, a state Edwards is counting on winning, and now has staff and volunteers in New Mexico, North Dakota and Missouri, a state that suddenly went up for grabs when Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt dropped out of the race last week.

The Clark campaign, which raised almost as much money as Dean in the last three months of 2003, has put it to use on ads and staffed offices in Feb. 3 states.

The Lieberman campaign hasn't spent much, but aides say that they've conserved money for a push in Arizona and Oklahoma.

The Dean campaign, which was spending Brewster's Millions everywhere in running a "real national campaign," has now yanked its ads outside of New Hampshire to concentrate on winning here.

And the suddenly strong Kerry campaign, which had appropriated few resources outside of Iowa and New Hampshire, is scrambling to put organizations into place in as many Feb. 3 states as possible.

But if those concrete steps will be dependent on Tuesday's result, so will so many of the things that follow. After all, the lesson from Iowa is that momentum, whether created or merely documented, matters.

Right now it's John Kerry who has the weight of great expectations on his shoulders. He's the one with the lead in the polls and the big endorsements, guaranteeing that even a narrow loss here will be written up as a "collapse" on the order of those suffered so frequently by his beloved Red Sox. He's even shown signs of feeling the pressure -- ABC's Kerry reporter caught him screaming at his press secretary about swarms of reporters that now follow his every move. But with so much going for him -- the big hometown embrace, the huge crowds, the huge and much-needed uptick in fundraising -- it's a safe bet that this is a problem he's happy to have.

If Dean manages to win after the bad week before Iowa and the week since -- and it's possible, depending upon which poll you read -- expect to read phrases like "shifted landscape" and "dramatic sea change" about a hundred times more frequently than they appeared after Kerry "turned the race upside down" by winning in Iowa. And writing Dean off makes as little sense as prior assessments that said he was invincible, given the historic difficulty of polling in New Hampshire.

And if he doesn't win, at least his supporters are already looking forward. "I'm not sure whether the grass roots can turn it around by this Tuesday," said John Kennedy, a 33-year-old Dean volunteer from North Carolina. "But I think as time moves on and we move to Feb. 3 and Super Tuesday in March, there's a much better chance for Dean to regain his front-runner status."

Josh Benson

Josh Benson is Salon's national correspondent.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections Howard Dean Joe Lieberman John Edwards John F. Kerry