Cratering and Rising

A month back just before the capture of Saddam Hussein, and after the endorsement of former Vice President Al Gore, Howard Dean shot out to a huge lead in national polls (15—20%) over whomever was second, a 25 percentage point lead in New Hampshire, and a 10—20 percentage point lead in Iowa (depending on the poll). A lot has changed in a  month for the all but certain nominee of a month ago.

Yesterday morning brought news that the latest Zogby Poll  shows Dean clinging to a 2% point lead over Gephardt in Iowa (25—23%), and John Kerry and a late charging John Edwards 10—11% further back.  A month ago, Dean registered as high as 42% in Iowa. In New Hampshire, General Wesley Clark has moved into a strong second place position at 20%, with John Kerry slipping to 10% in third. Dean who once held 45% of the New Hampshire vote in polls a month ago, is down to 35%.

So too, Dean's internet mailing list has stalled short of 600,000 names, and his fundraising prowess also seems to have slowed this week. For the first time, the Dean campaign was forced to extend by two days the time period for a fundraising challenge set up over the internet.

On Friday Iowa Senator Tom Harkin endorsed Dean, just a few days after Bill Bradley did the same thing. Normally, politicians do not want to break a big positive story on Friday, which will lead to stories in Saturday papers, the slowest day for newspaper sales. But Dean knows he is slipping, and the latest fiasco came from the revealing of dozens of tapes of Dean on a Canadian political talk show. In one of them Dean trashed the Iowa caucus process. This is why Dean clearly required an immediate Harkin endorsement to halt his slide in the state.

Suddenly, the Dean juggernaut seems highly vulnerable. Dean could easily lose Iowa. No—one knows for sure how Iowans will react to the Dean swarm of 3.500 out—of—state campaigners invading their caucuses to support their man. Gephardt is relying on his industrial union supporters, and older voters to carry him to victory. A win is his only chance to survive and fight another day. Even a narrow loss in Iowa and Gephardt is finished. Dean can lose Iowa, and still survive, with lots of money, and enthusiastic supporters.  A loss in Iowa would endanger his lead in New Hampshire.

The media, which loves a horse race, even more than  they hate President Bush, will jump on the rising stars — perhaps Edwards in Iowa, and Clark in New Hampshire, and size them up a second time. Gephardt, even with a win in Iowa, is in trouble. He has little money, and has not excited anybody other his longtime union friends. He might be a solid general election candidate — coming from a contested border state, with appeal to elderly voters, and in the Midwest.  But he has staked everything on Iowa and is nowhere on the map in New Hampshire polls.

John Kerry is also on life support. He could finish 4th in Iowa, despite a renewed effort there. If that occurs, his remaining support in New Hampshire will disappear, and he will be gone from the race by early February. The Kerry campaign will then rank with John Connelly's, and Ed Muskie's as one of the greatest flops in modern political history. Kerry's best hope is to finish second in Iowa, knocking out Gephardt, and recharging his effort in New Hampshire. I think this is unlikely.

Edwards is the late bloomer in Iowa. He has played nice, and this seems to have some appeal to rural Iowans.  Since he has been all but ignored by the pundits the last few months, a third place finish in Iowa could be a big victory for him. It won't do him any good in New Hampshire, but could make him more competitive in South Carolina and other later state primaries.

Joe Lieberman polls 4th in New Hampshire, and his campaign seems to have no base where he will win. He is, despite his principled effort, doomed, unless lots of McCain independents come streaming to his side in New Hampshire. He is too middle—of—the—road for his party.

Wes Clark is now the real challenger to Dean. If Dean loses Iowa, Clark might win New Hampshire. New Hampshire has been known to produce a few surprises in recent years — Gary Hart and John McCain among them. Clark has abandoned Iowa and spent all his time in New Hampshire. It seems to be working. His stump speeches are now as harshly critical of Bush as Dean's. There will be some wonderful then and now ads by the Bush campaign if Clark is nominated. Of course, the Bush campaign has been collecting material almost every day on Dean; pretty much every time he opens his mouth.

But the Bush campaign may not get Dean in November. If Clark is the nominee, he is a stronger contender in the South, and the Midwest, and if the Iraq war deteriorates, he could make it a horse race.  It is almost inconceivable that Dean, the governor of America's most liberal state,  could compete  nationally with Bush.

The Bush people want Dean and do not want a southerner to head the Democratic ticket (Edwards or Clark).  A month ago, with good economic numbers and the capture of Saddam their general election prospects looked very rosy. Now we have mad cow, another deadly helicopter disaster in Iraq, attacks on Bush from former Treasury Secretary O'Neill, very  weak job growth numbers, soaring budget and trade deficits, a rapidly sinking dollar, and continued scathing press on Iraq (read this month's  Atlantic Monthly articles by Ken Pollack, and James Fallows). Had the plane with 65 on board that was shot at in Iraq last week, not made it back safely to the airport, this huge casualty toll might have caused some  serious questioning of the war effort. 

Bush is still the favorite, but no longer a near certain winner. His preferred opponent is now in a horse race. If Dean hangs on in Iowa, and wins unconvincingly in New Hampshire, then Dean and Clark will be the two survivors when the campaign goes to the South. Dean's internet swarm won't carry the day nationally, as they might in the first two caucus and primary states. Clark, like Dean is well—funded.

Whoever wins such a fight will be bloodied some for the general election struggle. If Dean survives after a close tough primary fight, he might be even weaker for the general election campaign (several more months to shoot his mouth off).  If Clark emerges victorious, Dean's army might abandon the party, and back a Green nominee, or an independent run by Ralph Nader, or encourage their man to run  as a third party candidate. They won't love Clark for knocking Dean off.

All this makes for a surprisingly interesting primary season, rather than the laydown for Dean, and for Bush in the general election, which seemed likely a month ago.