The Magazine

The Spirit of New Hampshire

From the February 2, 2004 issue: With the "Wes-wavers," Lieberman's mom, and Dennis Kucinich in Manchester.

Feb 2, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 20 • By MATT LABASH
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The main event, however, comes that evening at the umpteenth Democratic presidential debate. While everyone is on edge, anxious to see if Howard Dean overcomes his gaffes and makes up his lost lead, something seems to be missing. Perhaps the rock'n'roll bacchanal that was once synonymous with the name "Dick Gephardt." Still, you wouldn't know it outside. In the parking lot next to the venue at St. Anselm's College, staffers and volunteers of all stripes see who can out-chant whom. Kucinich supporters, greatly outnumbered but with a healthy dose of what they call "Dennis Power," hijack the proceedings with bucket drummers and dancers, out-funk-ifying the more vanilla Dean supporters. The freaks were also out in force. A man in a giant penis costume posing as a candidate offers all sorts of phallic campaign promises: He will "reform the penal code," he will "foster intercourse between nations," etc.

Up at the campus's Dominic Hill, John Kerry prepares to march down to the debate with a firefighter's union and their bagpiping corps, who are playing something that sounds like Dean funeral music. For a moment, Kerry's bus, the "Real Deal Express," almost grinds its candidate into the pavement as it hurtles down the hill. A line of Deaniacs obstruct the way, causing Kerry and company to knock into the back of their bagpipers, who are getting their kilts flipped up and worse. The Deaniacs then burst through the line, and the Kerry supporters start pushing back. The whole thing plays like a battle scene from "Braveheart," or it would've if "Braveheart" had featured a man dressed like a giant penis getting hip-checked into a snow-bank.

The debate itself, as has now been well-documented, is boring beyond description. In the light of Dean's meltdown, all the frontrunners seem intent on being their campaign-brochure selves, only less so. After sustaining a sore throat and a week of nightmare press, Howard Dean appears to be sucking back his own words even as he says them, causing Joshua Green of the Atlantic Monthly, sitting next to me in the press room, to comment, "It sounds like a guy trying to hold in a bong hit." Other reporters busy themselves by making fun of the candidates' physical characteristics, or by writing mock headlines for tomorrow's paper, such as "Safety First."

In the spin room afterwards, stanchions are placed on a gym floor with each candidate's name posted on them. But appearances by the candidates themselves follow a time-honored pecking order: the worse a candidate is doing, the more you see of him. Consequently, frontrunners Kerry and Dean don't even make an appearance. John Edwards and Clark make a brief showing, while Lieberman takes a few extra passes. And Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich are probably still holding court.

As I approach Kucinich, he spies me, and immediately looks shamed. He failed to utter the magic word during the debate, but a man of honor, he seeks to make amends. As I take my place among a group of reporters with no knowledge of our agreement, Kucinich, apropos of nothing, launches into the following, proving that sometimes the absurdity of these spectacles is its own reward. "What I want to say is, these debates could have been more SPIRITed. It would have been better television. However, the tone of the debate enabled me to get my SPIRIT out about the issues of trade, the war, education. . . . And I think the people of New Hampshire appreciate someone who's both specific and SPIRITED."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.