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Dean's Denial

The former front-runner doesn't seemed to have learned much from his Iowa debacle.

1:00 PM, Jan 21, 2004 • By DAVID TELL
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John Kerry's alleged recent "momentum," on the other hand, seems an entirely romantic notion to me, a species of all-purpose, can't-go-wrong political analysis in which what you have to do to win is win, and if you aren't winning you aren't doing it, and if you keep right on doing it but eventually wind up winning anyway, then . . . well, never mind about that. Never mind, for instance, that the "revitalized" John Kerry we're suddenly oohing and aahing over is virtually indistinguishable on the stump from the John Kerry who spent most of the past year watching his preference poll and fundraising numbers slowly but inexorably disappear--and hearing himself derided as a hopeless stiff, his candidacy enshrined next to John Connally's in the campaign-flop Hall of Fame.

The derision was always terribly unfair, mystifying even. Kerry's a more-or-less normal human being pursuing a more-or-less normal American political career and experiencing a more-or-less normal allotment of misfortune along the way: bad moments, bad luck, bad advice from friends, unresponsive audiences, and so forth; if all you were looking for was evidence of the cartoon Kerry -- remote, inarticulate, purposeless -- it was there to be found, no question.

But it's still there, that's the point. As is the full-color, flesh-and-blood John Kerry that was always there, too, weirdly overlooked: a smart, knowledgeable, experienced, and -- I'm sorry, there's no denying it -- vastly likable and therefore totally plausible candidate for the White House. Both Kerrys showed up last night at Pembroke Academy, a local public high school on the eastern outskirts of Concord, for a meet-the-candidate cafeteria "chili feed." Cartoon Kerry's verbal eccentricities and tendency toward dramatic overreach were especially well represented. "I don't want the words of politics to get in the way of the reality of what we're talking about," he said at one point. If elected president, he said at another, he's determined to do something about the national emergency involving "kids who can't do shapes and colors in the first grade."

It didn't matter. The holistic, real-world Kerry was finishing a triumphant first day back in New Hampshire, and the Pembroke Academy cafeteria was absolutely packed, 600 people probably, all of them enthusiastic, basking in a winner's glow. Kerry's not doing anything different. I'd say his fortunes are on the rise almost exclusively because the other fellow's fortunes have begun to show unmistakable signs of collapse.

That would be Howard Dean, though it's not clear he adequately appreciates the problem -- or has the disciplinary wherewithal adequately to redress it. Iowa Democrats had a long, lusty, wild-oats fling with Dean, and it was fun while it lasted. But when it came time to make a formal commitment they balked, hard, dumping him for Kerry and Edwards, the boring but sober and dependable boy-next-door types. Howard Dean's just not the kind of guy you bring home to mother -- an impression he's now further, and perhaps indelibly, cemented into nationwide consciousness by means of that demented "victory" speech he delivered at his final public appearance in Des Moines Monday night: the purple-faced, muscle-seizure grimaces; the hollering; the instantly infamous "yeeee-haaaw" war-whoop finale. It may turn out to have been an episode of "Muskie Weeps"-level self-destruction. And if so, it may turn out to have been a mercy for us all.

'Cause lookit: How many heat-of-the-moment slip-ups can a presidential candidate be permitted before everyone's forced to conclude that he's just not up to the job? At 3:30 a.m., in the post-"yeee-haaaw" wee hours of Tuesday morning, Howard Dean's charter flight out of Iowa touched down at Pease International Tradeport just south of Portsmouth on New Hampshire's Atlantic coast. More than 700 highly excitable young people greeted him in an adjacent hangar, where they'd been dancing self-parodically in place for almost 90 minutes ("Play that Funky Music, White Boy") and ripping off a succession of spooky unison chants: "President . . . Dean! . . . President . . . Dean!" The governor luxuriated in this adoration 'til 4 a.m., subdued by exhaustion but otherwise looking and sounding like a man who'd just received the happiest news of his life.