Minutes after Thursday night's Democratic presidential debate here, the man running Howard Dean's South Carolina campaign had plenty of time to talk but very little to say. Asked about Dean's debate performance, Don Jones said he hadn't seen much of it. Asked about the budget he's got left to run a campaign here, he said, "I'm not going to say." Asked how he thought Dean would finish in South Carolina, he said, "I don't want to make predictions."
To say that the air is out of the Howard Dean balloon in South Carolina may be to insult spit-filled latex everywhere. Just a month ago, polls showed Dean leading the pack in what will be the first Southern primary in the 2004 presidential race; an overnight tracking poll released Thursday had him in fifth place, drawing just 5 percent of the vote.
And if Dean was looking to Thursday night's debate to turn around his campaign, he will surely fly out of South Carolina disappointed. In an otherwise sleepy debate, Dean managed not only to remind voters of his Iowa outburst but also to portray himself as the only candidate on the attack against the front-runner, Sen. John Kerry.
The only consolation for Dean: Sen. John Edwards didn't do much better.
"If tonight's debate is any indication, Dean is the only candidate who is not conceding the race to John Kerry," said Merle Black, a professor of politics from Emory University who traveled from Atlanta to Greenville to watch the debate. "And the way John Edwards acted tonight, it's clear that he's running for vice president."
Thursday's Democratic debate could have been a defining moment in the 2004 presidential campaign. It was the first debate since Iowa and New Hampshire made the race a real thing in the eyes of many voters, the first debate in the Kerry-as-front-runner era. And it is the only debate before primaries on Tuesday in South Carolina, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, North Dakota and Delaware. But the only thing Thursday's debate really did was confirm the new status quo: Kerry is on top of the world, and Dean is struggling -- not too successfully -- to climb back up there.
Dean's troubles in Greenville weren't all his fault. For the first half of the debate, Dean comported himself like the Southern gentleman he isn't. But then, during a commercial break, Dean told moderator Tom Brokaw that he thought the debate was "mellow." Dean probably wasn't thinking that Brokaw would repeat the comment on the air. But Brokaw did, and in doing so he invited Dean to stir the pot. Dean couldn't resist, and he launched into an attack on Kerry as a do-nothing Washington insider.
"Just to make this a little less mellow, when I was governor I got everybody in my state who's under 18 health insurance," Dean said. "Now, Senator Kerry is the front-runner -- and I mean him no insult -- but in 19 years in the Senate, Senator Kerry sponsored 11 bills that had anything to do with healthcare, and not one of them passed."
Kerry responded by claiming that he had made progress on healthcare issues, just not necessarily with legislation that carried his name. Dean mocked Kerry's rebuttal as "what I consider a real Washington answer." Then Dean went after Kerry again. And as before, he called attention in advance to the fact that he was on the attack. "I want to take another run at Senator Kerry," Dean said, then contrasted his record on healthcare with Kerry's.
The attacks weren't emotional, they weren't nasty and there wasn't anything close to a scream. The Dean campaign saved the sniping for the memos it circulated to reporters during the debate, including one entitled "FYI -- Kerry Voted for the War. " But in a night that was otherwise more of a coronation than a confrontation, the Dean offensive underscored what many see as a sad state of affairs for him here.
"The support for Dean got a lot softer here after New Hampshire and Iowa," said Roger Finch, a retired union worker who serves as Greenville County's representative to the South Carolina Democratic Party. "I'm personally disappointed. But if I were Dean's campaign manager, I'd be saying, 'Don't spend any more time here,' too."
Finch endorsed Dean in the South Carolina primary. But a few hours before the debate at the Peace Center for the Performing Arts, he was at nearby Allen Temple AME Church in Greenville, waiting to hear John Edwards speak.
Edwards is leading in the polls in South Carolina, and he has said he must win here. The North Carolina senator was born in South Carolina -- a fact he mentions here almost as often as he says he's the son of a millworker -- and he has positioned himself as the only Democrat who can carry the South in November.
While Edwards may well win in South Carolina -- he was greeted warmly by African-American voters at Temple AME and will campaign aggressively throughout South Carolina before leaving for New Mexico Saturday -- his debate performance may not help him much. He failed to set himself apart from the also-rans and let Kerry equivocate on a prior statement in which the Massachusetts senator seemed to dismiss the importance of the Southern vote.
And along the way, Edwards offered up a sound bite he'll regret if he wins the Democratic nomination and has to beat Bush in the South in November. Responding to a question from Brokaw about gay rights, Edwards said he supported "hate crimes legislation that would make gays and lesbians a protected class."
"It was not Edwards' best night," said Black, the Emory professor.
It was certainly a good night for Kerry, who came across as more confident, more polished -- more presidential -- than he had in prior debates. Except for brief moments in which he defended himself against Dean's attacks, Kerry kept his focus squarely on November, attacking Bush on jobs, on Iraq, on education, on healthcare and on truthfulness.
"The president gave guarantees -- not just to the Congress and to the American people but to the world -- about how he would conduct himself as president," Kerry said. "He said he would build a legitimate global coalition [before invading Iraq]. He said he would respect the United Nations process and work through it. And he said to the American people he would go to war only as a last resort ... The president broke every one of those promises to the American people. He launched a war. He did not build a legitimate coalition. He did not go to war as a last resort, and I think he fails the test of commander in chief."
Kerry brushed off doubts about his chances of doing well in the South, noting that he has picked up key endorsements from retiring South Carolina Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings and South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the most influential black politician in a state where African-Americans may comprise nearly 50 percent of the Democratic vote.
Hollings and Clyburn were both in the spin room following the debate. Hollings said he knew that a Democrat deemed a "Massachusetts liberal" could win the presidency because John F. Kennedy did it 40 years ago. "Every time I ran after that, it was, 'He's a Kennedy liberal, he's a Kennedy liberal,'" Hollings said. "It's always the same crap." Clyburn said he thought Kerry could help the Democrats win back the South because his military experience will move the party "past Vietnam."
With no one but Dean challenging him Thursday night, Kerry certainly had the look of the winner to whom everyone else deferred. But the toned-down nature of the debate may have had less to do with the standings in the horse race than it did with the geography of the seven state primaries that will be held Tuesday. The Feb. 3 primaries are scattered throughout the country, and the Democratic contenders aren't really competing en masse in any of them.
Kerry is focused on Missouri and South Carolina. Edwards is focused on South Carolina and New Mexico. Ret. Gen. Wesley Clark -- who made an awkward play for Southern votes when he proclaimed that "I grew up in the South and I went to church every Sunday and I did all that and I can quote scriptures and so forth" -- is perhaps smartly looking to the military-heavy states of Oklahoma and Arizona. And Sen. Joe Lieberman is looking toward Delaware and Arizona, where an endorsement from the Arizona Republic was enough to give Lieberman cause to announce that "Joe-mentum" was on his side all over again.
The Dean campaign is apparently looking to the future. Dean suggested Thursday that he doesn't need to win anywhere on Tuesday to remain viable, that he can take an 0-9 record into Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and other upcoming primary states where he may be more competitive.
Jones, Dean's South Carolina campaign chief, said he's still got 70 employees on the payroll here in South Carolina -- even though none of them is being paid at the moment. And he said that 150 people turned out for Dean's debate-watching party at Tassey's Tavern, a bar located just down the street from the Peace Center.
A few hours before the debate, Dean supporters had hung a banner outside on the wrought-iron railing outside Tassey's. It said: "You Gotta Believe!!" Two hours after the debate, the banner was gone, and the party was over.