The winnowing-out process has begun and we have just been "winnowed in".
former Oklahoma Senator FRED HARRIS on his strong 3rd place showing in the 1976 Iowa Democratic Caucuses
Senator Harris had pretty good reason to be so jubilant back on the evening of Monday 19 January 28 years ago: a person who had briefly been a contender for his Party's nomination four years earlier (though he ended up folding up his tent a few months before the first Primaries back in 1972) and one of four Democratic presidential contenders that year identified as being of the liberal wing of the Party (the others were Congressman Morris Udall of Arizona, Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana and George McGovern's second running mate back in 1972, Kennedy in-law Sargent Shriver [whose own daughter is currently- in 2004- the First Lady of the State of California]; former Governor- and future President- Jimmy Carter was identified as the principal moderate-to-conservative among the leading 1976 Democratic nomination hopefuls), Harris had garnered more than 10 percent of the Iowa caucus vote, keeping Udall (prior to Iowa, considered to be the strongest liberal contender) behind him in the single-digits percentage-wise and finishing only three percentage points behind Bayh in second place (Carter was the winner in Iowa with 28 percent of the caucus vote and, in retrospect, was already being sent on his way to a White House many still- even after the Georgian's victories in Iowa and New Hampshire- thought he could not win).
But the Road to the White House is ofttimes a cruel and most lonely highway: come New Hampshire (back in that day, more than a month after Iowa's caucuses- not the "eight days a week" later it is nowadays), Harris would end up finishing a disappointing 4th behind Granite State winner Carter, Udall (resurrecting his candidacy with a strong second-place showing only 5 percentage points behind the victorious Georgian) and Bayh- in that order. A week after New Hampshire, on Tuesday 2 March 1976, Harris barely finished 5th in a Massachusetts still living high off its liberal reputation of being the only State to choose McGovern Presidential Electors four years before and, on that very same day, finished an equally disappointing 3rd to Shriver in an Advisory Primary in Vermont. From that point on, Harris was a non-factor in the 1976 race and- although it would be another month before Harris formally called it quits- his candidacy was "toast", which only went to show that having been "winnowed in" early in the delegate selection process proved, in the end, to not be worth all that much!
Senator Harris' words all those years and decades ago, as quoted at the start of this piece, well came to mind, however, as I considered what has happened to the field of Democratic Presidential hopefuls since my last Commentary, entitled GENTLEMEN- AND LADY, START YOUR ENGINES! and then surveyed the remnants of that field in preparation for this Commentary of mine. The "Lady" (former Senator/former Ambassador Carol Moseley-Braun) is now out of the running, as is former Democratic U.S. House leader Dick Gephardt (whose having wrecked upon the rocks of the Iowa caucuses has certainly made the upcoming Missouri Democratic presidential primary much more interesting!), leaving seven "Gentlemen" still out there on the track. How many have truly been "winnowed in" and, of these, how many will still be racing out there come the end of next month?
Let's now take a look at each remaining Democratic presidential contender in order of their finish in the most recent Primary, this past Tuesday's in New Hampshire:
John Kerry: Senator Kerry's victory in New Hampshire this past week is somewhat hard to read. The Granite State is correctly viewed as a last conservative bastion in hardscrabble New England but, obviously, such a label only well applies to Republicans. In any jurisdiction in which one Major Party predominates over the other, the minority Party tends to lean somewhat more to one side of the political spectrum than it normally would in a more competitive two-Party jurisdiction and New Hampshire's Democrats are no exception to this rule: keep in mind that New Hampshire was where Eugene McCarthy did surprisingly well against an incumbent President Lyndon Johnson so as to force LBJ out of the 1968 race, where George McGovern finished embarrassingly close to Edmund Muskie from neighboring Maine in 1972, where the total percentage of the primary vote for the leading liberal challengers to the victorious Jimmy Carter was a majority. Granite State Democrats have often proved themselves to be among the more liberal in the Nation, if only because where else is a liberal New Hampshireman to go?
So was Kerry's large victory over Howard Dean in New Hampshire purely a function of which of these two contenders the liberal wing of the Party might now view as its true champion? Or did Kerry, instead, win with more "across the board" appeal to Democrats in general than has been represented by the army of "Deaniacs" who so wildly support the Vermonter. The jury is still out on this and the final, definitive verdict of that jury will now have to wait until at least well into February.
Nevertheless, there is absolutely no doubt that the biggest winner in January was, indeed, John Kerry. Back on 10 January, I had written that [a] poor showing by Senator Kerry... in New Hampshire clearly dooms his presidential ambitions. At the time I wrote those words, Kerry's campaign was floundering: it seemed unlikely- back on the 10th- that the Bay Stater would do well in Iowa and that, like Morris Udall 28 years ago, he would- after Iowa- be forced to resurrect his candidacy in New Hampshire with a strong second-place showing. Mere resurrection?!-- No!! For what Kerry was able to do by gaining convincing victories in both Iowa and New Hampshire was positively amazing: as a result, instead of being 2004's "Mo Udall", he- instead- has now taken on the role of this year's "Jimmy Carter".
The question, of course, is now this: can Kerry, like Carter, use his wins in these early contests as a springboard to the Democratic nomination- let alone the White House- come the Convention this Summer? And the answer, my friend, is still very much blowing in the wind, for Kerry's two big victories so far are as much about the failures of his rivals as about Kerry's own strengths-- Kerry's showing in the upcoming primaries and caucuses will also be as much about his rivals' potential problems, which is why we will leave the now front-running John Kerry for a look at those very rivals.
Howard Dean: Former Governor Dean was, as we can now see with the 20-20 vision that is the very definition of hindsight, in trouble before Iowa. In the Advisory Primary in the District of Columbia on 13 January, Dean- at the time still the leader in the polls re: New Hampshire and seemingly locked in a fight for first in Iowa with Dick Gephardt- bested the Reverend Al Sharpton by a percentage of 43 to 34. In my 10 January commentary, I had written that one of the things D.C. would tell us is how well can Howard Dean do within the Black community? Answer: not all that well. Dean initially claimed that his victory in D.C. showed his ability to draw African-American votes but a further analysis showed that most of his support came from White voters. The most telling "stat", however, was Sharpton's showing.
The most simplistic notion would be that Sharpton did well precisely because of the ethnic demographics of Our Nation's Capital-- however, Sharpton was way behind in the polls re: D.C. not all that long before while Dean had gained the endorsement of the entire Washington, D.C. City Council. Thus, it appears that both Dean's rather terse "No" to Sharpton's insistent query about minorities in Dean's cabinet while Vermont Governor in a televised debate just days before the voting in D.C., perhaps along with Dean's earlier comment about wanting to be the candidate of white people who rode around in pickup trucks with Confederate battle flag decals affixed to same, came back to haunt the Vermonter among a key Democratic Party constituency. The later results in Iowa and New Hampshire showed Dean's D.C. victory to, indeed, have been a rather pyrrhic one.
In a weird way, though, Dean both won and lost in New Hampshire at the same time. His poor 3rd-place finish in Iowa only a week after polls still had him well in contention in the Hawkeye State did not augur at all well for the Vermonter's chances in the Granite State: indeed, some initial polling in the Granite State immediately after Iowa had Dean lucky to still be able to fight over scraps with Senator Joe Lieberman! That Dean was, in the end, able to pull out a second-place finish in New Hampshire now makes him the "Mo Udall" of 2004, the contender most relying on liberal support who- though bloodied in Iowa- remains unbowed after New Hampshire. I wrote, back on 10 January, that DEAN LOSES should be appearing the next day as the headline in your local newspaper in so-called "Second Coming" type : the font size, as things turned out, was to actually prove quite a bit smaller but this only serves to make Dean's candidacy all the more intriguing.
For what does the Vermonter do now? Clearly, Dean's initial strategy was to best Gephardt in Iowa (while, presumably, everybody else remained further back in the pack) and then- using Iowa as a springboard- win New Hampshire (a victory which- or so it was thought- would knock fellow New Englander Kerry out of the race), after which the Vermonter- who had long been the liberal darling riding opposition to the war in Iraq- would then begin to move back towards the center that is actually Dean's real political home in a final push to win the nomination. But now there are far too many birds on that centrist suet cake and Dean seems forced to at least consider "staying left" if he wants to stay in the race all the way to the Convention in Boston. The question for Dean now is: can he so stay left and still win what he needs to win to remain a viable contender with at least a plausible shot at the nomination? or does he still now move toward the center anyway with the attendant risk of alienating many of the "Deaniacs" who have been supporting him thus far? Is the Vermonter now damned if he does and damned if he doesn't in any event?
Whatever the answers to those questions, Dean had better win something-- and soon!-- if he wants to retain a viable chance at his Party's nomination.
Wesley Clark, John Edwards: I will consider these two together here for a number of reasons: first, it is very clear that primaries in the South (beginning with South Carolina's Party-run Primary this coming Tuesday) are going to finally determine the ultimate fate of each of these presidential contenders; second, they finished in a virtual tie with each other for 3rd place in New Hampshire (as a result, Edwards cannot be viewed as truly a 4th-place finisher in that Primary-- the North Carolinian certainly is not the equivalent of a once "winnowed in" Fred Harris in the process of now being winnowed out) and, third, they both came up short of the 15% of the vote threshold their Party requires in order for either of them to have been allocated New Hampshire delegates (thus, neither won any delegates to the National Convention out of the Granite State).
The battle between General Clark and Senator Edwards is one that is yet to be fully joined: Clark, after all, stayed out of the Iowa fray in which Edwards had a good second-place showing about as surprising as Kerry's victory in that same contest and New Hampshire was not likely going to be at all a good indicator of which contender better represents the early 21st Century Southern Democrat and thus becomes one of the leading champions of the "sensible center" in that Party.
The February primaries- particularly those in the South (South Carolina next Tuesday, Tennessee and Virginia the week after that)- will have to be relied on before we can more fully divine this one.
Joe Lieberman: I had already written, back on 10 January, that Senator Lieberman, although also from New England, might not suffer as much with a poor showing [in New Hampshire]- at least not immediately, as Lieberman has a candidacy on his side of the Democrats' political spectrum almost as unique as Al Sharpton's on his! This is why I was not at all surprised that Senator Lieberman, even though he only garnered 9 percent of the vote in the Granite State, lives on to fight at least another week. In a way, Lieberman really finished 4th, not 5th-- if you consider 3rd place to have actually gone to 'Clardwards' (the two Southern candidates already discussed considered as one).
But how long can the Connecticut Senator stay in the race with such poor showings? Like Howard Dean, Joe Lieberman simply has to win something or he soon goes the way of Dick Gephardt!
Dennis Kucinich: Exactly why is Congressman Kucinich still running for President? And should we actually care about the actual answer to the first question?
Al Sharpton: Reverend Sharpton is the one candidate who did not have to do anything significant in either Iowa or New Hampshire [where even drop-out Gephardt got more votes than Sharpton]. A man with no pretensions of ever becoming his Party's presidential nominee- rather, one who wants to simply make sure he still has a seat at the table in Boston this coming July, along with some cards still being dealt his way and at least a few chips left to play- continues in this race as the man who, as already noted, had a showing in the D.C. Primary that had already exposed some glaring weaknesses in the candidacy of Howard Dean. Back on 10 January, I had written how at least during the earliest weeks of the Primaries and Caucuses, I think the Democrats of 2004 are well heading towards something along the lines of what their Party had back in 1984: a mainstream centrist contender (presumably one- if not more than one- of the five ABD'ers sitting out the D.C. Primary, playing Fritz Mondale in this particular "movie"), the challenger to the mainstream (Howard Dean as Gary Hart redux) and the candidate of the disaffected (Kucinich, Moseley-Braun and Sharpton fighting over who gets the Jesse Jackson role). I still think this is true and that Reverend Sharpton- currently third in the polls re: the South Carolina contest as I write this, by the way- has clearly emerged as that "third" candidate.
As for the other two 1984-like "roles": Howard Dean remains the challenger to the Democratic Party mainstream- even with the recent replacement of his original campaign manager with a political insider associated with former Vice President Al Gore, and we are now- in this next month- going to learn just who can now come forth as the leading "ABD'er" (which, for those who have not read my 10 January piece, simply stands for "Anybody But Dean"er): now-front-runner Kerry? either of the Southerners: Clark? Edwards?-- possibly even (though not very likely) Lieberman? And, if Dean should be finally and unceremoniously winnowed out for sure beforehand, will we then be taking note of a surviving "ABK"'er, "ABC"'er or "ABE"'er going into "Super Tuesday" (2 March)?
The winnowing-out process proceeds apace!