The Blog

Big Night

Watching the Iowa returns in New Hampshire with Wesley Clark, the Kerry camp, and the Deaniacs.

1:40 AM, Jan 20, 2004 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Manchester, New Hampshire

7:40 P.M., Clark HQ: As Iowans are getting settled into their caucus rooms, Wesley Clark is working the New Hampshire phone banks. Just in from South Carolina, the general has come to spend the night with his troops. Dressed casually in a gray-green cable sweater and black cap-toe shoes, Clark does something impressive right off the bat--he keeps his mouth shut.

While the voters on the other end of the line yammer on about healthcare and corporate America, Clark listens intently. Not just intently, mind you, but earnestly and without trying to break in or lecture. Like Joe Klein's Bill Clinton, Clark puts the big ears on and, as a listener, he's captivating--totally focused on his subject.

Except for the lower half of his body. Beneath the table, Clark keeps knocking his knees together and tapping his toes at approximately 74 beats per minute.

THE ENTIRE HEADQUARTERS is abuzz tonight, with a couple hundred volunteers and staff gathered to touch the general's hem. Like the Deaniacs, the Clark people are young--few look over 35. But unlike the Deaniacs, there's not a lot of anger. The office is covered with signs, posters, and placards--none of which gives off even a whiff of Dean's "take-our-country-back" fervor. The closest anyone comes to referencing George W. Bush is one woman who sports a clever button with Clark's face and the words "All Patriot. No Act."

It's a merry, joyous atmosphere. Except for one oddity: There's not a television in sight. The consequence of which is that no one in the building realizes that their campaign's game plan has collapsed from underneath them. Clark, you'll recall, was supposed to be the fellow who went mano-a-mano with Howard Dean after Kerry, Edwards, and Gephardt got clocked in Iowa.

9:15 P.M., Kerry HQ: You can hear the chanting from outside the building--"KERRY! KERRY! KERRY!" and "BRING IT ON! BRING IT ON!" Inside, about 150 volunteers are whooping it up, doling out high-fives and celebratory pizza and cake. CNN has just called the race for John Kerry and the Massachusetts senator is leading his nearest competitor, John Edwards, 36 percent to 32 percent. More importantly, Kerry has doubled-up the formerly invincible Howard Dean, 36-18.

But even though the mood is celebratory, it's clear the this is a campaign, not a movement. Unlike the Clark volunteers, few of the Kerry people are wearing buttons, pins, or campaign gear. The office itself is professional looking, with only a scattering of round placards on the wall, which proclaim simply: "John Kerry: The Real Deal."

Also, the Kerry headquarters is filled with grown-ups. It's not the AARP crowd, but a number of those cheering are in their 40s and presumably have real jobs and families to go home to. Consequently, they seem to have a bit more perspective. When Wolf Blitzer announces that Dick Gephardt will be flying to Missouri in the morning to withdraw from the race, a hush falls over the room and people turn to one another, sadly murmuring, "aww, that's too bad." Had Dean won Iowa, it is hard to imagine his followers would have reacted the same way.

10:15 P.M., Dean HQ: As it is, the Deaniacs don't seem particularly bothered by the results. Finishing a cigarette in the cold outside the office, one staffer tosses his butt, turns to his mate, and says, seriously, "Alright man, let's go back in there and win this thing."

It's a plucky attitude, but it's nothing compared to Howard Dean himself. In his concession speech from Iowa, Dean goes a little nuts. His face contorted and red, Dean begins yelling out a list of states he intends to win "We're going to California! And Texas! And New York!" he screams, sounding uncomfortably like a professional wrestler. "And we're going to South Dakota! And Oregon! And Washington! And Michigan! And then we're going to Washington, D.C. to take back the White House! AARRRGHHA!"

Listening to the governor's tirade, one Dean staffer whispers reverently, "He's like the Incredible Hulk."

"Yeah man," another Deaniac agrees. "He's a rock star."

DEAN MAY BE A ROCK STAR, but he's a rock star with problems. It isn't that he lost Iowa, it's that two candidates who voted for the Iraq war and campaigned as pleasant adults, beat him 70 to 18 percent. There isn't room in the race for both Kerry and Edwards, and eventually one of them will drop out. But bellowing and flexing like Hulk Hogan isn't likely to move those voters into the Dean column.

Still, Dean isn't dead. He's running a 50-state campaign, he's got tons of money (and there's no reason to think that supply will dry up) and a solid infrastructure that operates almost independently of the campaign.

And, of course, he has the type of supporters who believe that failure is a sign of encouragement and anger is a sign of strength. Just before 9:00 P.M., as the returns were coming in, Dean's Blog for America posted the following item:

We won't know for some time what the results are--we'll let you know as soon as we know--but for now it looks like Dean will finish in the top three, but not first. . . .

The other candidates and campaigns understood the enormity of what you are trying to do, and they think that they can stop you.

I know they can't--we may yet win Iowa, but if we don't, I believe it will only inspire us to rise higher to the challenge, do more, reach out more, and organize more. I believe a wave will hit New Hampshire this week . . .

By the early morning hours, the Dean Blog still hadn't posted the Iowa results. Which is strange: Up until this moment, bad news has always been good news for Dean. Whenever he stumbled or came under attack, his blog would publicize it, donations would flood in, and more people would join the campaign.

But then again, Howard Dean had never lost a race before tonight and it could be that Team Dean thinks the bad news from Iowa is different.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.