Kerry Front Runner in Democratic Race

IN POLITICS just as in real life, events have a way of messing up the best-laid plans. U.S. Democrats aren't surprised to have a clear front-runner as the state-by-state battle to win the party's presidential nomination picks up steam. They're just surprised by who it is.
IN POLITICS just as in real life, events have a way of messing up the best-laid plans. U.S. Democrats aren't surprised to have a clear front-runner as the state-by-state battle to win the party's presidential nomination picks up steam. They're just surprised by who it is.

Kerry Front Runner in Democratic Race

IN POLITICS just as in real life, events have a way of messing up the best-laid plans. U.S. Democrats aren't surprised to have a clear front-runner as the state-by-state battle to win the party's presidential nomination picks up steam. They're just surprised by who it is.

Only a month ago, the runaway favourite was Howard Dean, the nondescript former Vermont governor who had almost magically transformed himself into a populist firebrand and Internet fundraising juggernaut. There was talk of Dean "running the table," picking up victory after victory in the rapid-fire succession of caucuses and primary elections the states use to pick delegates to the Democratic nominating convention in July. And if Dean stumbled, surely the party would coalesce around an anti-Dean: a southerner, a charmer, an establishment man to confront the starry-eyed, anti-establishment Dean mob. A war hero like retired Gen. Wesley Clark, for instance. Or a handsome, sunny fellow like John Edwards, the North Carolina trial lawyer turned rookie senator.

But John Kerry? An Ivy Leaguer who married a ketchup heiress, he's no populist. A veteran Massachussetts senator who's mused about the possibility of simply conceding the states of the old Confederacy to the Republicans, he's no southerner. And despite his amazing biography - a Vietnam war hero who came home to become a leader of the anti-Vietnam protest movement - he is no charmer, a dour speaker with a crippling fondness for cliché and equivocation.

Only a month ago the party establishment had all but written Kerry off. Then he won the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19. And he whupped Dean handily eight days later in New Hampshire. Suddenly, Kerry is the guy with momentum, the fabled Big Mo, and the other candidates are tossing out their carefully prepared playbooks as they try to figure out how to stop him.

What happened? A few days of interviews with Democrats in South Carolina - one of seven states that were to hold primaries or caucuses on Feb. 3 - suggests a partial answer. The party is groping with the question that obsesses it this year: how do we stop George W. Bush?

Doug Taylor is a bearded Vermonter who came down to Columbia, S.C., to join his daughter, Laura Goodrich, on Dean's campaign team in South Carolina. As he watched CNN's coverage of the New Hampshire returns in a downtown hotel lobby bar, Taylor, who is retired but still consults for his former company, IBM, had little good to say about the other Democratic candidates. But one cause transcends the party's family feuds.

"Every one of us has a common theme, which is to stop Bush," Taylor said. "We gotta get that son of a bitch out of the White House. Because we can't afford to have him appoint any Supreme Court justices. Can't afford four more years of his policies. It's a question of, who do we think is the best guy? And I just think Howard Dean is the guy who can get in his face," Taylor continued. Clearly the image appealed to him. "And let me tell you something. We need somebody who can get right - up - in - his - face!"

"Make him cry," Goodrich interjected. "Send his butt back to Texas." She giggled at the thought of it.

"And let me tell you something else," Taylor said. "You can quote this. The last contribution I made to the Dean campaign was for $142. You know why? Because $142 is the price of a one-way bus ticket from Washington, D.C., to Crawford, Texas. And you know something else? The bus stops at Waco and he has to walk the rest of the way."

Every faction in a party has its own micro-culture. The Dean group watching the New Hampshire returns looked a bit like an alumni meeting of a campus computer club and smelled of cigarette smoke. A few blocks away at a ribs-and-chicken joint, supporters of John Edwards gathered in a room that had the soapy smell of self-consciously impeccable personal hygiene. Edwards supporters, by the look of them, come from good families, shop at J. Crew and go out for rowing club. But the Edwards fans had simply reached a different answer to the same question the Deaniacs were posing. I asked Jennifer Paul, a student at the University of South Carolina, what she thought of Bush. She made a face. "Not very much. I don't trust him. And every time I hear him speak he looks like a big idiot."

Her friend Timothy Powell said he was backpacking through Europe last year when the U.S.-led war in Iraq was underway. In Pristina, Kosovo, he and his buddy put Canadian flags on their backpacks to stay out of trouble with the locals. "It's embarrassing, but it's a pretty good statement on the way the rest of the world views America," he said. So why Edwards? "I'm a pretty staunch left-wing liberal Democrat," Powell said. "But I'm also pretty worried about someone like Dean being elected. He suffers from angry-man syndrome."

Edwards, on the other hand, is a determined advocate of the happy-man syndrome. He never tires of reminding crowds that he brings a "positive, uplifting message." For this he has been something of a media darling. The New Yorker magazine carried a glowing portrait of him nearly two years ago. Even after he fell from a strong second-place finish in Iowa to a rough tie with Clark for a distant third in New Hampshire, the New York Times said he "remains an intriguing wild card."

If this were a contest to pick the nicest guy, there wouldn't be any contest. Kerry and Edwards have both published books to coincide with the campaign. Kerry's, A Call to Service, is a slog through ordinary policy prescriptions and stale rhetoric: "I was brought up to care about the big issues ...[Kerry and his fellow Vietnam vets] came from different states and backgrounds, but all that really mattered was that we were all from America."

Edwards' book, Four Trials (written "with" a professional writer, John Auchard), is on the other hand both a canny political ploy and a dynamite read. Edwards made his fortune and his name as a plaintiff trial lawyer, a not altogether popular species because tort verdicts in the tens of millions raise everyone's insurance premiums, make it hard for rich companies to get richer, and generally put a third of the awarded damages in the pockets of lawyers like John Edwards. If Edwards becomes a threat, the Republicans will surely go after his record. So Four Trials sets out to inoculate Edwards by describing four of his biggest victories as heartening crusades on behalf of the little guy. It's a genuine page-turner, with taut courtroom scenes right out of a John Grisham novel.

It is, perhaps, one measure of how topsy-turvy this campaign has become that the real John Grisham spent last Wednesday criss-crossing South Carolina campaigning for John Kerry. Far more significant in a state where about half the primary voters will be African-American, Representative Jim Clyburn, the state's most prominent black politician, endorsed Kerry too. And perhaps most upsetting of all for Edwards and Clark, the other southern-state candidate (Arkansas), a midwestern state has suddenly usurped South Carolina's role as the most important battleground on Feb. 3.

Nobody had really bothered to campaign in Missouri because everyone assumed its favourite son, Dick Gephardt, would take it. But Gephardt quit the campaign the day after his humiliating fourth-place finish in Iowa. Suddenly Missouri, the biggest Feb. 3 payday with 74 pledged delegates up for grabs, has become the big target of the moment.

South Carolina doesn't like to be ignored. Kerry launched his campaign here, in front of an aircraft carrier docked off Charleston, but has barely been back. He has said it would be a "mistake" to assume Democrats must take a few southern states if they want to win the White House. It is hard to see why that's a mistake. After 1960 the only Democrats to reach the White House - Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton - were southerners who carried some southern states. Oddly, Kerry's aloofness makes him irresistible, like a guy playing hard to get. But Dick Harpootlian, a former state Democratic chairman, was still in the newspapers almost every day last week, pleading with Kerry to pay more visits.

Meanwhile, poor Edwards - the North Carolina senator born in South Carolina, the sunny son of the South - found himself in a tiny room at South Carolina State University the day after the New Hampshire primary, speaking to a few dozen students. Dean, too, has not seen the end of his problems. His campaign raised an astonishing US$46 million, much of it on the Internet, but seems to have spent almost all of it. Joe Trippi, the architect of the Dean dot-com boom, quit the campaign in a huff when Dean brought in a new guy to add much-needed discipline the day after New Hampshire. Dean became the only top-tier candidate to forego television advertising in any of the Feb. 3 states, preferring to marshal his dwindling resources for later, and presumably friendlier, elections in states like Michigan and Washington.

If the overarching question of this primary season is how to beat Bush, the new question is: why do so many Democrats think the answer is John Kerry? The answer can't be his positions, which are a challenge to decipher (he voted to support the use of force in Iraq, but maintains that was no endorsement of Bush's war). It can't be entirely his resumé: he was a lieutenant but Clark was a general. Some observers are starting to suspect it's his manner. If Democrats want somebody to get in Bush's face then Kerry, a supremely flexible man, is happy to oblige. He has made testosterone-soaked High Noon rhetoric a centrepiece of his campaign. Bush wants to debate national security? Kerry makes his perma-scowl even scowlier and intones, "Bring - it - on!" When he popped up in Missouri, he reminded everyone that it's known as the "Show Me" state and added, "And we're going to show George Bush the door!"

Chaotically, tentatively, Democrats appear to be deciding that what they need most isn't a pacifist to confront the warrior Bush, or a general to disarm him, or even a southerner to mow his electoral lawn. What they've selected - last week, anyway; in this crazy race, who knows about next week? - is a tough guy to stand up to him.

Maclean's February 9, 2004