Union Tribune

January 28, 2004

Despite his showing, Kerry still not in the clear


NASHUA, N.H. Sen. John Kerry's solid victory yesterday was one of the most impressive come-from-far-behind wins in New Hampshire history.

But it still was not enough to knock any of his major rivals out of the Democratic presidential race or give him an unimpeded path to the nomination.

With two wins in two contests, Kerry is now clearly the front-runner. But he is a front-runner with a lot to prove as the campaign moves out of his home turf in New England and into areas where being called a "Massachusetts liberal" is not a term of endearment.

Even as he savors his win, Kerry must know that he failed to drive a stake through the heart of Howard Dean's campaign. Only a few days after the former Vermont governor was the target of late-night comedians and sinking in the polls, he managed to regain his footing and avert a more embarrassing finish.

After dancing on the precipice of his political grave, Dean still lives to fight on. But finishing a distant second in a state where only 27 days earlier he held a 25-point lead could not fill his supporters with great confidence.

Dean's campaign remains very much on life support. Built on a strategy of roaring out of Iowa and New Hampshire with two victories, the campaign instead limps into the next contests with only a bronze and a tarnished silver medal and no clear win in the seven states up for grabs Tuesday.

"Dean plays on, but I'm not sure he is back on his feet yet," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. "He is going to have to get a win somewhere next week. You don't want to go oh-for-nine. That's the kind of losing streak where you fire the coach."

The reality that confronts Dean is that just as he needs a must-win, the campaign makes a radical shift in tone and moves onto turf that is far less friendly toward the Vermonter than his neighboring New Hampshire. New Englanders are more tolerant of Dean than will be the residents of most of next week's seven states South Carolina, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona and Delaware.

That the campaign takes a turn will be abundantly clear with the contrast between today's campaign schedule and any recent day in New Hampshire. On Sunday, for example, any New Hampshire voter could have driven to see all four leading candidates with a commitment of only seven hours and half-tank of gas. The candidates took questions and visited restaurants, schools and country stores.

Now, the playing field stretches from Delaware to Arizona.

While Dean is retreating to Vermont to plot a comeback strategy before visiting numerous states the rest of the week, the others plan to cover a lot of ground immediately. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark will be in four states, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards will be in three states. Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman will be making his stand in Oklahoma.

"New Hampshire was the last bit of retail politicking these guys will do. Now, it shifts from retail to wholesale," said William G. Mayer, a Northeastern University political science professor and author of a recent study of the nominating process.

"Up to now, they've actually spent a fair amount of time in which they actually met ordinary voters, and starting now it becomes a media campaign, which means they will meet very few voters," he said.

That puts a premium on television advertising, an area where Kerry has excelled this year. "His ads are so much more effective than the others," said Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who has tested the ads with groups of voters assembled for MSNBC.

"It's the right tone; it's the right subtlety; it's the right directness," said Luntz.

After interviewing voters in both Iowa and here, Luntz said Kerry is connecting with Democrats desperate to defeat President Bush. Luntz praised Kerry for having the "right balance of experience, passion and focus."

Kerry will need that advertising edge to give him a win Tuesday, a day when for the first time this year there will be no moral victories, no prizes for second place. Each of the five top candidates must win a state to push forward.

For Lieberman, that is unlikely to happen after a deeply disappointing fifth place finish. For Clark, the general-turned-politician must find some way to regain the momentum he enjoyed less than a week ago before his campaign was stalled by his own verbal stumbles and Kerry's surge.

"This has been amateur hour so far," said Miringoff of Clark. "There is not much time on the clock and he's got to do better."

But that will be difficult for a campaign built on the premise that the Democratic Party would be looking for an alternative to Dean. "He was the anti-Dean. But now he's got to figure out a way to be the anti-Kerry," Miringoff said.

For Edwards, there is more hope. According to exit polls, he was the clear second choice of most Democrats who voted for other candidates in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Further, he has proved himself a remarkably accomplished campaigner. But he must win in his native South if he is to set up a Kerry-Edwards showdown as the campaign moves into the mega-states of California, New York, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois.