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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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Manchester, NH

Early this past Saturday evening Howard Dean took a brief timeout from his business then still at hand -- Iowa -- to host a by-telephone press conference about some business then still ahead: his final-week stretch run here in New Hampshire. The Dean campaign seemed to be losing a bit of altitude, one of us rudely reminded him; everything--the polls, the campaign's front-line mood, what have you--seemed suddenly to favor Senators Kerry and Edwards in Iowa, and Wesley Clark in New Hampshire. What if he were to stumble a bit in the former state? Was Dean making contingency plans to shore himself up in the latter state, just in case -- or just as a matter of simple and sensible midstream adjustment?

No, actually. Or so Dean claimed, at least: "We don't think we need to change anything" in New Hampshire. Did that mean he continued to expect a win there? No, actually: "I don't think I said I expect to win New Hampshire." He was playing down his chances in both places, then? No, actually: "I do think we're gonna win Iowa."

Gov. Dean's expectations -- and most everyone else's -- have since been confounded, of course; he's gone and gotten himself thoroughly pasted in Monday's Iowa caucuses, by Kerry and Edwards both, each of whom was thought to be all but out of the race as recently as three weeks ago. What happened? How did Dean's rivals so dramatically turn things around?

Or maybe that's posing the question backwards. Maybe Dean's rivals didn't really have all that much to do with it.

Take John Kerry, for example. Two diametrically opposed -- almost mutually exclusive -- explanations for Kerry's revival now grace the newsmagazines and dailies, sometimes side by side, sometimes in the same story, even. And neither explanation seems especially persuasive.

The first, a nod to campaign-insider orthodoxy about "what you have to do to win" the Iowa caucuses (Rule Number One: Organization is Everything), holds that Kerry mounted a super-sophisticated, get-out-the-vote effort, beginning in November, under the direction of a reputedly legendary Democratic operative named Michael Whouley. Whouley is supposed to have brilliantly out-maneuvered the rest of the field, simple as that. Except that it can't have been simple at all. How could Kerry staffers have designed and implemented a months-long, race-altering statewide voter mobilization program that went completely undetected by the media, and unreflected in the polls, until the last few days of the Iowa campaign? And how important can voter mobilization have been to begin with, since Kerry's late-inning Iowa surge occurred simultaneously with the even more startling, come-from-behind finish posted by John Edwards. Whose formal get-out-the-vote apparatus, it's generally agreed, never amounted to beans.

No matter, though. We're meant to understand that Edwards had compensating "momentum" toward the close. And Kerry had it, too. Both men ultimately "found their voices," the story goes -- sharpened their messages, intensified their personal appeals, summoned inner reserves of energy and purpose as storm clouds gathered over the lonely, frozen plains. That sort of thing, the "great moments in sports" school of political science, nine parts romance for every one part fact. Sure, in the present instance, there's a fact or two involved, at least where Edwards is concerned: He did change his spots during the waning weeks of the caucus contest, ostentatiously re-branding himself as the uniquely high-road candidate in the race, the one with the "optimistic, positive, uplifting vision" who was going to "challenge our cynicism about politics" -- presumably by alerting us to the cabal of "corporate lobbyists and other special interests" who currently rule our destinies from the halls of power in Washington. Personally, I liked Edwards better back when he was merely an engaging and intelligent fresh face with an admirably detailed and interesting policy platform. But it was his self-reinvention as a goo-goo populist that clinched the Des Moines Register's endorsement -- which appears to have carried special weight with the unusually large number of Iowa voters who waited until the very last minute to make up their minds.