On the night that Sen. John Kerry won the Iowa caucuses, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee had a message for the other candidates in the race. "After Feb. 3," USA Today quoted Terry McAuliffe as saying, "if you haven't won one of the nine contests, you need to rethink your candidacy."
Now it's Feb. 3, and it's McAuliffe who seems to be doing the rethinking. In an interview with Salon Monday, McAuliffe said that he never used the word "rethink," that he actually made the comment in December -- long before the Iowa caucuses -- and that he meant only that a candidate who hadn't won in Iowa, New Hampshire or any of the seven states holding primaries today would have to assess for himself whether he could continue to raise the money needed to keep a campaign alive.
"Listen, I made that statement in December, when I had nine candidates running, and clearly all nine candidates were not going to make it all the way through February," McAuliffe said Monday. "And remember, when I said that, Howard Dean was the front-runner and was going to run the table."
McAuliffe's memory notwithstanding, there's good reason for equivocation on the importance of the primaries today. With Dean all but sitting out the seven-state race and other candidates cherry-picking states in which they can compete, Feb. 3 suddenly no longer seems like the decisive test that a lot of people once thought it would be.
If the latest polls and predictions hold up, Kerry will prevail in Missouri, Arizona, North Dakota, Delaware and possibly New Mexico. While those wins will certainly reinforce Kerry's front-runner status, they won't put a lock on it. Oklahoma is up for grabs, with Kerry and retired Gen. Wesley Clark running neck-and-neck in the most recent Zogby poll. And although Kerry has made huge gains in South Carolina, it now appears that North Carolina Sen. John Edwards will hold on to win there.
If Clark takes Oklahoma and Edwards wins South Carolina, questions will inevitably arise -- as they already have -- about Kerry's ability to carry the South. "You might see all of a sudden a reevaluation of the Kerry candidacy just like you saw a reevaluation of the Dean candidacy," said former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, a Democrat who has endorsed Clark. Hodges said support for all of the candidates is "thin" so far, and that it's possible for momentum to shift and reshift as the race moves on.
That may be wishful thinking, but it's also the thinking that's driving Dean supporters here in South Carolina. Dean led here in December, but it now appears that he'll do no better than a third-place finish. With Dean absent from the state since Friday morning, his supporters have had to resort to showing up at other candidates' events. Outside an Edwards rally in Columbia Monday afternoon, a handful of Deaniacs milled about carrying Dean for America signs. They acknowledged, however, that it's in their interest for Edwards to win in South Carolina in order to keep the waters muddy enough for Dean to dive back in when the race moves to friendlier northern states.
"Dean had the momentum before, and now Kerry has it," said Peter Armenia, a photographer from North Carolina who came south to support the Dean campaign. If Edwards and Clark can forestall the coronation of Kerry, Armenia said, then maybe Dean can get the momentum back in states like Michigan and Wisconsin.
Of course, if Clark and Edwards pull out wins Tuesday, they'll be in the position to make a claim to the momentum, too. How much of a claim, it's hard to know.
Edwards was born in South Carolina, and he has bet his life on winning here; except for a very brief trip to New Mexico Saturday, he has campaigned in South Carolina nonstop since Wednesday. On Monday, Edwards made campaign appearances in every television market in the state, starting in Charleston and ending the day in Seneca, the town where he was born. Along the way, he stopped at Allen University, a historically black college here in the state capital. His voice cracking with bronchitis, Edwards begged his supporters to get out the vote for him. "You must give me a shot at George Bush," he said. "You give me a shot at George Bush, and I'll give you the White House."
Outside the John Hurst Adams Gymnatorium where Edwards spoke, Columbia Mayor Bob Coble -- an Edwards supporter -- said he expects Edwards to win Tuesday, and he rejected the notion that the win should be written off as home cooking in a relatively uncontested race. "I don't buy this argument of, 'Let's discount South Carolina by not campaigning there,'" Coble said. "If Senator Edwards wins South Carolina, that's a win."
But the fact is, neither Kerry nor Clark -- an Arkansas native initially pitched as a strong Southern candidate -- has spent much time in South Carolina in recent weeks. Clark was in town briefly last week, his wife campaigned in the state over the weekend, and he has advertised heavily here. But by Monday, his staff wasn't even bothering to put out a press advisory on campaign appearances in the state; the only Clark surrogate working the state was apparently another retired general who is backing his campaign.
And while it once seemed that Kerry would make South Carolina an important part of his delegate-building strategy, things didn't work out that way. Kerry launched his presidential campaign in front of the USS Yorktown in Charleston on Sept. 2 and made a brief appearance in the state in late September. But he was all but AWOL from South Carolina after that, diverting staff and money to Iowa and New Hampshire instead.
Kerry's South Carolina fortunes tumbled in his absence. "You've got to remember," Holly Armstrong, the spokesperson for Kerry's South Carolina campaign, said Monday, "in December we were polling at 1 percent, behind Carol Moseley Braun."
Wins in Iowa and New Hampshire turned things around for Kerry in South Carolina, however. When he returned to the state for the presidential debate last week, he found himself in second place and gaining ground fast on Edwards. But it didn't last long. Kerry left South Carolina the morning after the debate -- "Britney Spears was married longer than Kerry has been in South Carolina," Coble said Monday -- and the Kerry campaign is now setting expectations of only a "fight for second place" here. That's a victory, Kerry's campaign says, when you consider where he started here.
"It's a race for delegates, and I think we'll get delegates here," Armstrong said. "We were at 1 percent three weeks ago, so the fact that we're even having this discussion says something about the Kerry campaign."
Clark supporters say only that their candidate needs to have a "strong day" Tuesday. What does that mean? "I think he needs to win a primary tomorrow, wherever that is, and he needs to have a good day in other places," said Hodges, the former South Carolina governor. And what happens if Clark doesn't win somewhere? "I think it depends on what kind of day he has," Hodges said. "He's raised money well, he's got a good message, and I think he's our best general election candidate. But we'll take a good look at all of that tomorrow night and evaluate where he is."
McAuliffe says that's all he meant to suggest about Feb. 3 back whenever he said it. "You will have had nine contests, with every region of the country in play, every major constituency in our party, from rural North Dakota to the African-American vote in South Carolina," McAuliffe said Monday afternoon. "At that point, you'll have a pretty good idea of what the voters are saying, and candidates will have to make a decision if they can continue to make the money to support their campaigns."