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Next stop: Super Tuesday
John Kerry has made one of the most impressive comebacks in modern politics. Can he sustain the momentum through the South?

MANCHESTER, NH — If you were unlucky enough to be a voter looking to cast your ballot at around 1 p.m. on Tuesday at the St. Pius X Parish Center, you might have fallen under the misapprehension that there was news taking place.

Wesley Clark, the retired general whose once-promising presidential campaign appears to be fading away, was scheduled for a meet-and-greet. And several dozen of his supporters — along with an approximately equal number of sign-holders for the day’s big winner, John Kerry, plus a fairly impressive media horde — were waiting for Clark’s arrival. A Dennis Kucinich backer in an Uncle Sam suit and at least one John Edwards supporter were on hand as well.

I never would have guessed it, but simultaneous shouts of "We want Wes!" and "JK, all the way!" actually work together, sort of like an adrenaline-fueled, politicized version of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Poll workers desperately tried to keep the entrance open so that real voters might have a chance of casting a ballot. Finally, the general showed up. Lacking the necessary weapon — that is, a television camera — I couldn’t get close enough actually to hear him over the yelling. But Clark stayed only a few minutes anyway. He climbed into a waiting SUV and was off. To oblivion.

In fact, as became clear that evening, Tuesday wasn’t just the day of the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. It may also have marked the beginning of the end for Kerry’s rivals. Prognosticators still licking their wounds from having predicted a Howard Dean blowout just a few weeks ago will no doubt be wary of heading down that road again, and they should be. But consider: the Massachusetts senator has now won the first two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, an astounding comeback. The money is reportedly rolling in. And with seven states up for grabs next Tuesday, Kerry may be on the verge of knocking out his badly wounded opponents. Dean, a former Vermont governor, has now failed to win either of two states where he invested months of effort. Clark — the would-be anti-Dean — lost his rationale when Kerry lurched back to life. And North Carolina senator John Edwards, who essentially tied Clark for a distant third in Iowa, must win South Carolina next week to keep his campaign alive. That task that will be made more complicated by the Reverend Al Sharpton, who’s been campaigning hard there and who is expected to do well among African-American voters.

In other words, the opportunity may be at hand for Kerry to move in for the metaphorical kill. Political pundit (and Bush cousin) John Ellis, writing for the Web site Tech Central Station on Tuesday night, put it this way in a piece headlined SHOOTING THE WOUNDED: "Strategically, Kerry has to throw every dollar, every organizer, every surrogate and all of his paid media at South Carolina, Oklahoma, Missouri and (to a lesser extent) the others. He has to shoot the wounded everywhere they twitch. If he does, then it will be over next Tuesday night. If he doesn’t, then the game goes on." The chief beneficiary of a drawn-out nominating process, in Ellis’s view: Edwards.

As for Dean, what can you say? His once-high-flying campaign had been falling apart since mid December, when Saddam Hussein was captured, thus defusing Dean’s key issue in the eyes of the public, if not necessarily in reality. Then too, Dean stopped acting like an insurgent and started sucking up to establishment figures such as former vice-president Al Gore, former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, and Iowa senator Tom Harkin, whose endorsements added up to squat. Dean’s emotional concession/victory speech in Iowa only punctuated what had been a fast, hard fall. In New Hampshire, he toned it down, got his wife, Judy Steinberg Dean, on the campaign trail, and started re-emphasizing his credentials as a policy guy. I caught one of his last town-hall meetings, at Phillips Exeter Academy, on C-SPAN Monday evening, and he was impressive — controlled, passionate, and substantive, all at the same time. But it wasn’t enough, and the margin of his defeat — 39 percent to 26 percent — amounts to a major ass-whupping.

So where does Dean go from here? On CNN, after the polls had closed, he pronounced himself quite pleased with his second-place finish. That set up this rather surreal exchange between him and Larry King.

"Do you have to win two or three states next week, logically?" asked King.

"No," Dean replied. "All we have to do is keep the grassroots support behind us."

Unless, one imagines, you’re trying to get elected president or something.

CONNECTICUT SENATOR Joe Lieberman was moving through the lunchtime crowd at the Athens Restaurant, in downtown Manchester. John Hook, a reporter for the Fox affiliate in Phoenix, stuck a microphone in Lieberman’s face. "Next stop, Arizona?" he asked. "After tonight, on to Arizona," Lieberman replied gamely. "We hope to be there by Friday."

Hook explained to me that Lieberman has been campaigning in Arizona for months. Yet he added that, after the Iowa caucuses, Kerry actually moved into first place in the Arizona polls, despite never having stepped foot in the state. Such is the bounce Kerry got from his stunning victory in Iowa — a bounce that will become even stronger after winning New Hampshire.

The front-runner appeared relaxed early Tuesday morning. Showing up at the Jewett Street School about a half-hour behind schedule, Kerry greeted supporters outside and talked with voters inside. "Good morning, how are you? I hope I earn your vote today," he repeated on several occasions, shaking hands, signing autographs, and posing for photos.

Kerry also talked for a long time with a woman who might go down as the Ultimate Undecided Voter. Colleen Biron, a chauffeur, showed up to vote, communed with Kerry for what seemed like a good five minutes, and walked over to a poll worker to request a ballot — only to be told she was in the wrong ward. But when I asked her whether she was going to vote for Kerry, she told me, "I haven’t completely, wholeheartedly decided." Apparently she was planning to ponder it while staring at the list of candidates.

There was no such indecision from Frank Giacoumis, who told me he’d decided to vote for Kerry two weeks ago. Displaying the pragmatism that pollsters have picked up among Democratic voters this year, Giacoumis said of Kerry, "I think he’s got the experience, and I think he’s got the credentials. He’s probably the best candidate the Democrats can put up to beat George Bush."

But being the front-runner isn’t easy, as Kerry — the early front-runner, before falling behind Dean — well knows. No sooner had he pulled off his Iowa miracle than the flak that had been directed at Dean for weeks was aimed at him instead. Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, noting that Kerry actually has a higher rating than Senator Ted Kennedy from the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action, said in a speech, "Who would have guessed it? Ted Kennedy is the conservative senator from Massachusetts!" More-substantive critiques surfaced as well.

For instance, the cover story of this week’s New Republic, by Washington Post reporter Michael Grunwald, argues that Kerry’s voting record in the Senate may make him an unusually easy target for George W. Bush and company. "In all likelihood, they would hammer Kerry for his opposition to mandatory minimum sentences for dealers who sell drugs to children and for voting against the death penalty for terrorists. They would mock his efforts to provide cash benefits to drug addicts and alcoholics, and his onetime opposition to a modest work requirement for welfare recipients. They would trash him for supporting more than half a trillion dollars in tax increases — including hikes in gas taxes and Social Security taxes on ordinary Americans — while accepting free housing and other goodies for himself from friendly influence-peddlers. They would even point out that, when Kerry served as lieutenant governor under one Michael S. Dukakis, Massachusetts famously furloughed more than 500 murderers and sex offenders under a program Kerry later defended as tough," writes Grunwald, noting that such criticisms were hurled regularly at Kerry during his difficult 1996 re-election campaign against then-governor Bill Weld. (Grunwald covered the campaign for the Boston Globe.)

Kerry is the cover boy for Newsweek this week as well. And though political reporter Howard Fineman’s profile of Kerry is generally positive, he also trots out all the old knocks on him, writing that "he can seem aloof, condescending and soporific. A close friend admonished him to ‘quit looking to see who else is in the room when you shake hands with someone.’ Stories are legion of Kerry’s forgetting names of local figures he’s met several, even dozens, of times.... He often exudes a sense of entitlement to power."

On MSNBC, the cable news channel that viewers forgot, Chris Matthews at one point offered a barely coherent description of Kerry as a "French-looking, Yankee-looking, Yankee-talking aristocrat." For good measure, Slate’s William Saletan writes this week of Kerry, "You’re getting a guy who has plenty of selling points, but who can’t make the sale himself." Adds Time columnist Joe Klein: "Why is Kerry such a god-awful speaker?"

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Issue Date: January 30 - February 5, 2004
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