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A brand-new campaign
After Kerry’s Iowa surprise, the Democrats hit New Hampshire running

PEMBROKE, NH — So how big a lift did John Kerry get from his stunning victory in the Iowa caucuses on Monday night? Here’s how big.

On Tuesday, at 6:15 p.m., I showed up at Pembroke Academy, the oddly genteel name for what is in fact a sprawling public high school. Kerry was feeding chili to the masses, something that has become a signature event for the Massachusetts senator. I was running late, driving over from a rally for former Vermont governor Howard Dean in neighboring Concord. And I couldn’t get in.

About a half-dozen of us were stopped by a uniformed police officer, who told us he wouldn’t let anyone else enter the jam-packed cafeteria. Off in the distance, I could hear Kerry delivering the closing lines of his standard stump speech — a speech I had heard him give some two and a half weeks earlier at a VFW post in Milford, at a moment when his campaign appeared to be going down the tubes (see "Facing the Finish Line," News and Features, January 9).

After a few minutes, enough people had trickled out that I was allowed inside. What I saw was a campaign — and a candidate — reborn. Kerry, wearing an open-collared tattersall shirt and olive khakis, roamed a small space in the middle of the cavernous room, a wireless microphone in his hand, taking questions, asking questions, and laying out his policy proposals on issues such as health care, public education, global AIDS, and terrorism — and, for good measure, how global AIDS causes terrorism.

In truth, Kerry’s intense focus and daunting expertise were no different from what I’d seen a few weeks earlier. But on Tuesday, about 500 people were hanging on every word, pressing in, seeking to connect. And a man better known for aloofness than empathy was connecting right back.

Miracle of miracles, Kerry even had the good fortune to call on a supporter of political extremist Lyndon LaRouche who turned out to be polite. The LaRouchies were everywhere on Tuesday. I saw them dragged out in the middle of speeches by North Carolina senator John Edwards and Dean. Following a talk by Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman, one approached me and demanded to know if I was going to ignore LaRouche. (I told him that’s exactly what I planned to do, but it looks like I changed my mind.)

At Pembroke Academy, though, a woman who identified herself as a LaRouche supporter told Kerry she wanted to ask him a question. Kerry told her to go ahead. She started to tell a long story about family woes, about a nephew who’s stationed at Baghdad International Airport, about her own campaign for state Senate in Connecticut. She thanked Kerry for not cutting her off.

Finally, a question. Dick Cheney, she said, is "the mastermind" in the Bush administration. She asked him what he intended to do about "the real devil in the White House."

It was an opportunity fraught with peril: a genuine concern wrapped in a paranoid view of the world. Kerry’s initial response was safe enough. "When George Bush goes, Dick Cheney goes, and that’s what we’re going to do," he said. But he went further than that, telling the crowd that she had raised some legitimate concerns. "This president is heading towards and initiating a clash of civilizations," Kerry said, echoing the title of a 1998 book by the scholar Samuel Huntington on the tensions between global capitalism and traditional religious and tribal cultures. And: "Multilateralism is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength." And: "This president went to war without a plan for peace and misled us about his intentions."

This week is likely to be among the wildest in the history of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Not that long ago, Dean was so far ahead that Ted Koppel — the moderator of an early-December debate — essentially demanded that the other Democratic candidates just get out. A few weeks before that, ABC News’s online political tip sheet, "The Note," observed that no one with Dean’s lead in the polls and in fundraising had ever failed to win his party’s nomination.

Then Saddam Hussein was captured, which appeared to alleviate voter angst over the war in Iraq, the opposition to which was Dean’s main issue. Dean put his foot in his mouth a few times, and was also subjected to the sort of examination that his training as a physician hadn’t prepared him for: proctology-by-media, something that is administered to all front-runners. His supporters seemed less than impressed, too, by the fact that such establishment figures as former vice-president Al Gore, former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, and Iowa senator Tom Harkin suddenly rushed to endorse the ex-insurgent.

Kerry, meanwhile, changed staff members, changed slogans, and finally, in desperation, all but shut down his New Hampshire campaign in the hopes of reviving his fortunes in Iowa. Many observers laughed or shook their heads at the seeming futility of it all, but Kerry operatives obviously knew what they were doing. On Monday, Dean slid all the way to third, Kerry triumphed, and Edwards came out of nowhere to finish second. Missouri congressman Dick Gephardt, the onetime Iowa favorite, finished fourth. On Tuesday, he dropped out of the presidential campaign and announced he would leave Congress at the end of his current term.

What all this means is that it’s anyone’s race. Dean remains strong in New Hampshire — stronger, one suspects, than he ever was in Iowa. Kerry, the former front-runner, may be on the verge of becoming the front-runner once again. Edwards is an attractive new face, literally and figuratively. Lieberman and Retired General Wesley Clark, who skipped Iowa and have been campaigning in New Hampshire full-time, will be factors as well — especially Clark, who as of Tuesday was tied with Kerry for second place, behind Dean, in various New Hampshire polls.

The New Hampshire primary will take place next Tuesday, January 27. What happens that day will go a long way toward determining who the Democratic nominee will be — and what chances the Democrats will have of defeating George W. Bush in November.

This past Tuesday, I set out with a goal: to see all five major Democratic candidates in action the day after the Iowa caucuses, to take the temperature of their campaigns, and to see where all this might be headed.

WESLEY CLARK gives good eye contact. With those steely-blue eyes, he looks right at you, and he has the rare talent of coughing up standard boilerplate with what comes across as sincerity and passion.

It’s a little after 10:30 a.m., and I have chosen to attend a Potemkin event: a speech to his campaign workers at his headquarters, in a rebuilt mill in Manchester. An aide hands us the text of his nearly three-page speech, from which he deviates often, and to good effect. There are chants: "We want Wes! We want Wes!" "All patriot! No act!" "We will! We will!" (That last one is kind of creepy when you think about it.)

Clark may have made a mistake by skipping Iowa. If Kerry had faded away, Clark would be perfectly positioned to take on Dean, whose foreign-policy credentials don’t extend much beyond pushing maple syrup in Quebec. But Kerry, a Vietnam War hero, is a Clark with political experience. Clark tries to make the best of it, telling the crowd, "I’m the only candidate who’s done high-level work in foreign policy and foreign affairs and national security."

During a media availability afterwards, Clark resists all invitations to go negative. WLVI-TV (Channel 56) political analyst Jon Keller gets a laugh when he says he’s just come from a Kerry event at a car dealership at which the candidate pledged to eliminate the country’s dependence on foreign oil. "Unfortunately," Keller says, "it was a dealership that specializes in humvees and SUVs." But Clark quickly closes the opening, blandly but earnestly assuring the press that he, too, favors energy independence.

When Clark notes that he stayed in the Army long after Vietnam, Mary Richardson, of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), asks whether he was taking a veiled swipe at Kerry. No, Clark responds, before expounding further on his military service.

As he closes, he offers what sounds a bit more provocative, saying of the Bush administration, "The full truth about Iraq hasn’t come out yet. Nor has the full truth about 9/11." But that, apparently, is going to have to wait for another day.

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Issue Date: January 23 - 29, 2004
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