Kerry Fights Ongoing Battle With Both Dean and Expectations

Posted May 16, 2003 at 1:34pm

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) now finds himself in an interesting situation. How does he recover the frontrunner’s mantle that he lost over the past few weeks? [IMGCAP(1)]

Kerry, of course, remains a top-tier candidate. He has plenty of campaign cash, strong organizations in the early caucus and primary states, and an aura of leadership that is so important in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

But whether because he missed the winter Democratic National Committee meeting — allowing Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) and Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) to impress committee members and the press — or because he became embroiled in a feud with insurgent former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Kerry seems to have lost some of the shine he once had.

Dean has emerged as a major annoyance for the Massachusetts Senator. Some Democratic strategists dismiss the former governor as a “minor candidate” whose bubble burst when U.S. troops swept into Baghdad, while others believe that Dean’s outsider, white collar, liberal appeal and take-no-prisoners style continue to make him a threat to Kerry.

And that’s exactly the problem. It’s hard to know exactly what Kerry should do to get rid of Dean.

Kerry’s victory scenario has always required a win in New Hampshire, but early polling shows him in a competitive race with fellow New Englander Dean. As one Democratic strategist put it, “John Kerry is trying to win New Hampshire, and Howard Dean is in his way.”

But if Dean is in Kerry’s way, the Senator has only himself to blame.

First, by taking on Dean with a sledgehammer, Kerry has elevated the Vermonter’s candidacy. While neither Dean nor Kerry looked very presidential during the early minutes of the South Carolina Democratic presidential debate, Dean benefited from the attention and from any perception that he was on par with Kerry.

Now, Kerry appears to be moving away from his feud with Dean, who admittedly can be annoying enough to get under anybody’s skin. (Of course, that’s exactly why Dean is an interesting candidate and can impact the Democratic race.) But has the damage already been done? Could Kerry have ignored the three-term governor from the beginning?

Second, the Senator has been even slower than others in the race to develop a message about why he wants to be president and what he would do as the nation’s top executive, and that has given Dean an opening.

Kerry’s current “message” has two parts but needs a third. Part I is the candidate himself — strong, authoritative, smart and articulate. Part II is Kerry’s experience — his war record and experience in state and national government. The Senator needs a Part III — a message about what he wants to accomplish.

The Senator has talked a great deal about national security issues and military strength, but he still has based his campaign more on his perceived electability and the high quality of his campaign team and field operation, rather than on issues, themes or the “vision thing.”

And Kerry still needs to create the impression among members of the media and primary voters and caucus attendees that he is a “regular guy,” not some stuffed shirt. That should be easy enough in this era of public relations trickery and “I feel your pain” Democratic politics.

Dean’s anti-Iraq war passion, his support for Vermont’s civil unions legislation and his claim to represent the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” have resonated with upscale liberals. As Washington Post reporter Tom Edsall has noted, Dean’s top contributor ZIP codes include Beverly Hills’ 90210, Cambridge, Mass., and Palo Alto, Calif., all areas with politically active Democratic constituencies that Kerry should own.

But Kerry might still have an ace in the hole. At the moment, he’s got a top-flight operation in Iowa being run by John Norris, a onetime Congressional candidate and a former chief of staff to Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D). Local observers say Kerry is drawing good crowds, attracting just the sort of white collar, urban liberals that he needs nationwide.

An impressive second-place showing in Iowa (behind Gephardt) could slingshot the Massachusetts Democrat to a strong position in the New Hampshire primary, boosting his prospects in the crucial contest and undercutting the seriousness of Dean’s threat.

A third- or fourth-place showing in Iowa might not destroy Dean, but a Gephardt- Kerry showdown in New Hampshire — with Edwards and Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) still hanging on for major contests in the South and West on Feb. 3 — could diminish the level of threat Dean poses to Kerry in the Granite State.

But for now, and especially given the increased salience of health care issues in the race, Dean remains a wild card for the rest of the Democratic field. And that can’t please the folks running the Kerry campaign.


Rothenberg Political Report