Anyone who couldn’t understand why former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the one-time front-runner in the Democratic presidential race, received a paltry 18 percent vote in the Iowa caucuses need only to have listened to the candidate after his third-place finish.
Dean, red-faced and determined, shook his arms, pointed, and vowed to fight state after state, in his quest to win the party’s nomination.
There wasn’t anything wrong with what he said, but he came across as angry and even a tad berserk. It’s the sort of thing that gives voters the willies, and his opponents are likely to play on Dean’s temperament as the New Hampshire primary heats up.
The big winner, Sen. John Kerry, the liberal Massachusetts Democrat backed by Sen. Ted Kennedy, managed to emerge, in the words of The New York Times, as “the reassuring, establishment candidate with the war hero’s record, solid policy positions and broad experience in government to be a strong challenger to President George W. Bush.”
Iowans seemed to respond to Kerry’s more positive message and arguments that he was more electable than a small-state governor with a tendency toward testy outbursts. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina finished in an impressive second place with 32 percent of the vote. He was the most positive of all the candidates, eschewing personal attacks and attack ads. The senator, perceived as a moderate, honed a folksy style that played well in rural Iowa, and should play well in the South.
Come general election time, the Democrats desperately need at least a vice presidential candidate from the South, in the hopes of peeling away one Dixie state from the GOP column.
Sen. Kerry takes a bounce into New Hampshire, although new polls show Dean with a slight lead. Our sense is Dean will now fade. As columnists George Will and Robert Novak point out, Iowans concluded that Dean was not electable and they are dismayed by his angry brand of politics.
Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., whose politics hark to a prehistoric era, gave a graceful concession speech, which is his political swan song.
Kerry, who was a fierce critic of the Vietnam War in which he served, is positioning himself as the Democrat tough enough to handle complex national security issues. Unfortunately, most of the candidates seem to be positioning themselves based on what their pollsters tell them.
The patrician New Englander Kerry is selling himself as a populist. It doesn’t pass the smell test. Nor does Edwards, a trial lawyer, come across as a convincing foe of special interests. Clark cannot even decide his own position on the Iraq war, let alone craft a coherent vision of the world. And none of the visions we’ve heard described by any Democratic candidate talks about freedom or limited government.
They are vying to take on a president who, despite some rhetoric toward those ends, has expanded government and eroded individual liberties faster than any president in memory. Despite all the hoopla, the choices seem more limited and disappointing than even cynics like us could imagine.