Comeback Howard?

The pundits have had a lot of fun at Howard Dean's expense the past few days. Arguably, even had Dean not 'lost it' with his supporters Monday night, John Kerry would have surged to the top in New Hampshire based on his Iowa momentum. This morning's latest Zogby Poll hints that the Kerry surge may have peaked.  And the climber is not 'Breck girl' John Edwards, or Joe Lieberman, or Wesley Clark, but the candidate already written off to the dustbin of collapsed frontrunners: Howard Dean.  In Friday polling interviews, Kerry led Dean by only 4 points, 26% to 22%.  On Saturday, Kerry led Dean by only 3 points, 28% to 25%.  Now admittedly, any one day sample within a three day tracking poll has a higher margin of error than the three day result, which today gives Kerry a 7 point lead.   


Other polls tell a different story: the ARG tracking shows Dean sagging, and Edwards climbing, and Kerry with almost a 20% lead. Somebody is wrong.


But watching the debate on Thursday, and seeing Dean poke fun at himself in national TV appearances, suggests that his ship may have stopped taking on water. If Kerry doesn't win New Hampshire, then the future of this race is very cloudy. John Kerry was a lousy frontrunner before Dean passed him last summer.  He may be a lousy frontrunner again. Dean was an arrogant, prickly, frontrunner before he came undone in Iowa.  Will he be more appealing coming from behind?


So far, John Edwards has been unable to turn his Iowa showing into any real New Hampshire momentum. Kerry only beat Edwards by 6 points in Iowa, but his surge in New Hampshire polls has been triple Edwards' climb.  Such is the reward for finishing first, and not second. Edwards would lose some of his magic with a 4th place finish in New Hampshire, and even more if Joe Lieberman passes him.


Lieberman was terrific at the debate the other night— principled, assertive on Iraq—region>, offering the best of the New Democratic Leadership's claim to offer an appealing centrist vision to the nation — a tougher international Clintonism, with the pants on.  If Lieberman passes Wesley Clark, who has lost most of his support to Kerry, and was dismal in the debate the other night, Lieberman or Edwards could finish third. 


It is hard to understand how seasoned political pros could have so badly overestimated Clark's skills or chances. Aligning oneself with Michael Moore is not a recipe for electoral success. Has Clark forgotten that Moore was a champion of Ralph Nader, and not Al Gore in 2000?  Even worse, Moore was a savage critic of the bombing war in Kosovo and Serbia—region>, on which Clark rests his claim to military leadership. Clark could have put the Bush deserter story to rest, but let it hang for fear of ticking off Moore. Moore is one vote.  Rational, non—obese Americans cast many more.


There are likely to be only three serious players after New Hampshire. Clark may or may not be one of them.  Edwards, even with a poor finish in New Hampshire, will have another shot in South Carolina, but he will be expected to win there, not place second or third. Dean, assuming he gets a second place finish in New Hampshire, and with by far the most money, can soldier on after New Hampshire, though now having to pick his spots and measure his rants, to try to sell the new calmer doctor, with a message broader than just opposition to the war.


This is turning into one of the most interesting and unpredictable primary fights in a half century. Kerry, Clark, and Edwards have all been up or down quickly for short periods of time. Dean was up for a long time, then collapsed, and is now trying to rebuild his base.


Kerry must still be regarded as the favorite for the nomination, especially if he holds on and wins New Hampshire. Two consecutive wins creates a certain aura of inevitability, and some voters in other states begin to fall into line. But if Dean comes back to win New Hampshire, it will be a bigger victory for him, than if he had won without  damaging himself first so badly in Iowa. He would then wear the mantle of comeback kid for a week or so.


If Edwards mounts a late charge and finishes a close second, he would carry great momentum into South Carolina.  Edwards needs to finish no worse than third to avoid a stall—out, now that the national media is swooning over him ('the greatest stump speaker since Kennedy', the 'natural' and so on).  


The Bush team probably would least like to run against Edwards. Edwards has looks, charm, and Southern roots. But he is also a candidate almost entirely funded by $2000 gifts bundled by trial lawyers (in some cases with lawyers reimbursing their secretaries who made the maximum contribution at their direction).


Edwards, the self styled son of a mill—worker, and cheery populist, made for himself between $40 and $70 million through personal injury litigation. At some point in a national campaign, the impact of the plaintiffs bar will become a bigger issue — from the medical malpractice insurance crisis (real, not hype) that is driving obstetricians, and neurosurgeons out of the business in many states, to the hundreds of thousands of American jobs lost as more and more companies have been bankrupted by the continuing asbestos litigation, and various other trial lawyer—targeted assaults.


These tort tycoons are one of the most successful special interest groups in America—region>, and the few thousand most successful practitioners, who have become among America—region>'s wealthiest citizens, clearly see Edwards as the best path to continuing their gravy train.  Edwards also has the 'gravitas' issue to deal with. His foreign policy credentials are weak (and I'm being generous here).

Some analysts say the country is divided almost the same way today as it was in 2000, and if anything, the red states are redder, and the blue states are bluer. Certainly there are some soft spots in each party's collection that they won in the last election: Nevada, New Hampshire, Arizona, Ohio, West Virginia, Louisiana, and Arkansas for the Republicans (the last two especially if a Southerner is on the Democratic ticket), and Wisconsin, Minnesota, Oregon, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico for the Democrats. 


Bush has to be favored if the war is a less hot button issue in nine months, which would occur if fewer American soldiers are there, and there are fewer daily casualties. An improving economy would be his best insulation against the one term presidency fate of his father. But a Kerry Edwards ticket, while an underdog, would not be hopeless.