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John Kerry and the living dead

The 2004 Democratic presidential primaries have seen the emergence of a new phenomenon: the loser who wonít quit. By Tuesday night, Massachusetts senator John Kerry had won 12 of the 14 states that have held primaries or caucuses, building what would seem to be an insurmountable lead. Retired General Wesley Clark finally got the picture and got out. Yet North Carolina senator John Edwards, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich, and the Reverend Al Sharpton trudge on.

Each of these zombie candidates has his own reasons for sticking around. In an interview with CNNís Larry King on Tuesday night, Edwards ó who had just come in second in the Southern states of Tennessee and Virginia, showing that his ability to lose to Kerry knows no geographic boundaries ó made it clear that heís got two things on his mind.

First, Edwards was hoping that Dean and Clark would quit, setting things up for a one-on-one with Kerry in the weeks leading up to Super Tuesday, March 2, when the mega-states of California and New York (and Massachusetts) vote. (Only Clark did.) Second, Edwards was obviously auditioning to be Kerryís running mate. Asked by King whether he would "absolutely" rule out serving as Kerryís number-two, Edwards proceeded absolutely to rule it in. "I am completely focused on this campaign for president of the United States. I am not thinking about anything else," Edwards said, pointedly not answering the question.

Dean, unlike Edwards, has no rationale. Rather, heís kind of like the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies or the 1978 Boston Red Sox: he blew a lead that all the experts believed was unblowable, and he somehow seems to think that if only he hangs on, the gods that so blessed him in 2003 will smile upon him once again. After saying that he absolutely, positively had to win Wisconsin on February 17, he now says he just canít let his Internet supporters down. Well, according to a recent poll taken for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and WTMJ-TV, Dean is currently running third among likely Wisconsin voters, with 12 percent, behind Kerry (45 percent) and Clark (13 percent) and ahead of Edwards (nine percent).

Given the rigors of running for president ó the 18-hour days, the constant travel, the bad food, the overbearing presence of the media (and now, except for Kerry, the overbearing absence of the media), youíd think these guys would get out as soon as they see that itís not going to happen.

Why havenít they? Itís hard to say, except that losing must be easier than it used to be. Dean is reportedly still raising money on the Internet. Kucinich and Sharpton are still being included in the televised debates, which is apparently their main goal. Edwards doesnít want to quit prematurely, thus making Kerry wonder if heís tough enough to join the ticket. Clark, at least, finally woke up ó three weeks after his decision to skip Iowa ruined his chances.

All this has been a godsend for Kerry, since his many challengers have been running against each other more than against him. The question is whether itís been good for the Democratic Party and good for the country. In five weeks, Kerry has managed to resuscitate himself from political near-death to virtually winning the nomination without ever really having to engage his opponents. (Yes, Kerry had a few things to say about Dean ó mainly on middle-class taxes, which Dean would raise ó but for the most part he let Ohio congressman Dick Gephardt do the dirty work in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses.)

Itís a stretch to say that Kerryís startlingly swift rise will hamper him against George W. Bush. But it would have been nice if heíd had to do something more politically daring than firing his campaign manager, tightening up his stump speech, and waiting for Howard Dean to self-destruct before tangling with Karl Rove and company.

Issue Date: February 13 - 19, 2004
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