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As Good As It Gets

John Kerry comes back from the dead, John Edwards shines, and Wesley Clark calls for regime change in the Middle East.

1:30 AM, Jan 21, 2004 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Manchester, New Hampshire, Tuesday, January 20

7:00 A.M., Wiggins Airways: For John Kerry, this is as good as it gets. About 500 people are gathered inside a slickly decorated hangar waiting for the senator to arrive from Iowa and their exuberance doesn't come from Kerry's new frontrunner status, but from the rush of having survived a near-death experience.

Kerry emerges to U-2's "Beautiful Day" and then, Bono-style, ascends a catwalk which leads him over and through the throng to the stage. At the podium he smiles while the cheers wash over him; he looks as though he can't quite believe it either. He makes two fists and does a bit of shadowboxing. Then he opens his mouth.

Dubbing himself "Come-back Kerry," he says a few words about Iowa and then moves right to the speech, where he begins by improbably blaming New Hampshire's environmental woes on "Big Oil." Then he talks about healthcare, the economy, repealing "No Child Left Behind," corporate tax reform, and renewable energy.

It's Kerry's standard stump speech, which contains only the briefest mention of foreign policy and really only one red-meat salvo at George W. Bush ("I know something about aircraft carriers for real!").

The crowd is more decidedly anti-Bush than the candidate is. They carry noise-sticks saying "John Kerry: BushWhacker" and chant "Bush is scary, we want Kerry." But Kerry doesn't go out of his way to feed them. Instead he gives the kind of solid, responsible, unspectacular performance that made him the odds-on favorite 18 months ago and then made people leave him for dead during the last 12 months. The only things which have changed are the circumstances around him.

11:30 A.M., Manchester Public Library: The other candidate whose circumstances have improved recently is John Edwards. Prior to last night, Edwards's strategy was to simply survive Iowa and New Hampshire and then flourish in South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee. Now Edwards has a dilemma: How much is he going to compete here? Even though his team says he'll be in New Hampshire most of the week, today's event is the only one on his schedule and, in choosing a basement auditorium which seats about 140, they seem to be thinking small.

The rap on Edwards is that he's managing his campaign on a shoestring and doesn't have the infrastructure to capitalize on his good showing in Iowa. The evidence so far supports this theory.

The other part of the rap on Edwards, of course, is that he's a natural and the best pure candidate in the field. The evidence today supports this theory, too.

The tiny auditorium is overflowing, with people sitting in the aisles and stacked out the back doors. On the small stage a group of 20 "ordinary Americans" are arranged and Edwards uses them as a backdrop for his speech. Smooth and effortless, Edwards hits the major domestic issues--healthcare, education, corporate taxes--and distinguishes himself by actually discussing specifics.

But sprinkled in this talk are grace notes. He calls helping the poor "our moral responsibility," making him the lone Democrat to use the "m"-word. In a room with only two blacks--one of whom is a LaRouche heckler--he takes a detour to talk about race and civil rights in an elegant way, saying, "we want our children and our grand children to be the first generations to grow up in an America that's not divided by race." Perhaps most impressive is a bit of triangulation where Edwards criticizes the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for being useless and then says that instead of scrapping it, as the Bush administration did, he would rewrite it and create an effective, enforceable pact.

Not everyone is thrilled with Edwards though. During his remarks he's heckled by two audience members, one of whom, unfortunately, was placed on the stage by the advance team as an "ordinary American." Outside, a small band of activists from Granite Staters for Medical Marijuana are handing out fliers and demonstrating. Asked why he's picking on Edwards, Phil Greazzo explains, "I don't want my grandmother, who has cancer, to spend her dying days in jail." As the conversation continues, Greazzo admits that his grandmother is already dead and never, in fact, went to jail. Asked what his grandmother's name was, Greazzo replies, "Marjorie, or, er, Margaret."

8:00 P.M., The Palace Theater: Wesley Clark has rented out an ornate theater downtown so that he can watch Bush's State of the Union address with voters and then give a response immediately afterward.

(Howard Dean's response--which begins "George Bush's empty proposals do nothing to address the real problems facing working Americans"--was delivered by email at 6:35 P.M., two and a half hours before the president spoke.)

The crowd at the Palace is stirred up, although it's not clear if it's Clark or the specter of George W. Bush that's responsible. Either way, Clark gets his first standing ovation of the night by questioning the president's patriotism: "I don't think patriotism is a president dressing up in a flight suit and prancing around on the deck of an aircraft carrier."

So it's hardly a surprise that the audience isn't on its best behavior once the general retires to the wings and the State of the Union begins. (For those keeping score, the Clark campaign chose the ABC broadcast.) There are the obligatory boos and hisses whenever Donald Rumsfeld, Tom DeLay, or Dick Cheney appear onscreen, but the crowd also expresses disapproval for Colin Powell and Lynne Cheney. During the course of the speech, audience members bay at the screen. For instance, when the president reports that since September 11 there have been no terrorist attacks on American soil, one fellow yells angrily, "And you're taking credit for it!?!" When the president lists the countries taking part in the coalition in Iraq, the crowd laughs derisively. When Bush says that "the people of Iraq are now free" one person in the balcony claps tentatively. The rest of the hall sits in silence.

AFTER THE SPEECH, Clark returns to a big ovation. He speaks briefly and then takes a few questions. The crowd is so worked up that they don't even notice when the general stakes out a more hawkish position than the president. "We're going to go to the Saudis and the Pakistanis and we're going to end the hatred, the invective, the funding, the madrassas, and help change those regimes in the Middle East," he says.

The question is whether Clark has just decided on regime change in those countries, or if they've been on his list since he first decided to run for president.

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