Manchester, New Hampshire

ONE MONDAY MORNING a couple weeks ago in Des Moines, I was standing toward the back of a YMCA meeting room on the city's south suburban rim talking insider gossip guesswork stuff with my peers and betters from the visiting Washington media mafia. And I was faintheartedly trying to explain why and how, yes, I still thought it possible--possible , at least--that Howard Dean could win a general election campaign against President Bush. There'd been a time, and not so long before, as I remember, when I could more or less routinely carry off this argument--even with people, not all of them Republicans or conservatives, who wanted very badly to disbelieve it. But that time was gone. Now, already--this was January 5--I was having an awful lot of trouble making a theoretical case for "Dean Beats Bush" to a group of professional political analysts who had no particular rooting interest one way or another. And now, already, Dean himself was having an awful lot of trouble making the same case, on his own behalf, even to deeply partisan Democratic audiences for whom "anybody but Bush" was practically religious dogma. Just the day before, for example, there'd been that Des Moines Register-sponsored debate during which Dean got barely half a sentence into some answer about what he'd do during the "sixth or seventh year of my administration"--and then faltered and had to stop, incredulous and distressed, when a fair chunk of the audience started laughing at him.

Anyhow, as I say, I was standing there in that YMCA, reminding my friends that November was a long ways off, and the American political landscape remained closely divided, and Democrats were united against Bush, and things could get even stickier in Iraq, and Howard Dean was a mighty talented and canny guy, and whatnot--so, sure, I still thought he could get himself elected. I got all the way to the end of this spiel and nobody started laughing at me. But when I was done, I couldn't help noticing that several unquestionably distinguished pillars of American journalism--among the most politically sophisticated people in the world--were looking at me like I'd just admitted I was a heroin addict or something.

Which wouldn't always dissuade me, necessarily. I've been known to dig in my heels about such stuff. And I've tried to do it this time, too. But it just won't work. I'm ready to surrender.

SO, OKAY, NO: Howard Dean cannot beat George W. Bush in a head-to-head general-election match-up for the White House. What's more, Howard Dean will not get a chance to lose that race, because he cannot win his party's nomination in the first place. Not any more; Dean's blown it. As a matter of fact, if I had to bet, I'd say it's likely Dean will finish fourth in the primary here on Tuesday, behind John Kerry and then, in some order, John Edwards and Wes Clark. That's how badly Dean's blown it.

Back when I was hypothetically campaigning for him at the Des Moines YMCA, Dean was running 25 points ahead of Kerry in the New Hampshire tracking polls. In last night's telephone surveys--results that won't be fully reflected in publicly distributed tallies until sometime this weekend, since the tracking polls are tabulated as 48- or 72-hour averages--Dean was running 5 to 10 points behind Kerry. That's a 30-plus-point swing in two and a half weeks. There's never been a New Hampshire primary-poll avalanche even remotely like the speed and scope of this one--except perhaps what happened to Bill Clinton after the Gennifer Flowers business in 1992. But Gennifer Flowers was survivable; Clinton could claim the story was a lie, that he was being smeared. How is Howard Dean going to pull off a trick like that in the present instance? Videotape's been broadcast all over the country showing a contorted-faced Dean hollering his way through a list of states and then whooping like a deranged homeless person. A vast right-wing conspiracy? I don't think so.

THAT YMCA POW-WOW I've already mentioned involved press-table chatter before a speech by Senator John Edwards. Last night I heard him deliver an almost word-for-word rendition of the same speech, his current standard stumper, to a packed house at a local V.F.W. post about an hour east of here in Portsmouth. I don't go for this speech, myself, because it's mythopoetic, fairytale crudity practically from start to finish--"I say NO to children going to bed hungry!"--and I know that Edwards knows as much, because he's as smart as they come, but he goes ahead and does it anyway, Mr. Pappy-Was-A-Millworker populist, which seems to me an expression of contempt for his audiences. Trouble is--for me, I suppose, certainly not for Edwards--that his audiences unfailingly eat it up.

Edwards is hot. And Kerry is hot, too, of course. Wes Clark is not so hot any more, the original "stop Dean" rationale for his candidacy having lost its purchase as Dean has stopped himself; Clark's no longer winning new supporters in appreciable numbers, I don't believe. On the other hand, neither does he appear to be losing the support he's already got, and I can't imagine any reason why he might lose it between now and Tuesday. The man's an empty suit for the most part: His understanding of domestic policy, in particular--huge swaths of substantive political territory--is paper thin. But he's learned to disguise this weakness better because, even I have to admit, he's pretty slick and fast on his feet. Also, the fact remains, there's a certain kind of half-wit "independent" voter in New Hampshire--and everywhere else in the country--to whom the mere idea of a guy like Wesley Clark (soldier, statesman, Cincinnatus reluctantly rescuing the people's politics) is always going to be attractive.

Not so with Howard Dean. With Dean the idea's an unpleasant one. And it's just this short of permanently fixed. During the evening-ending Q&A session at the V.F.W. in Portsmouth last night, a local man stood up and recommended that Sen. Edwards seek out the vanquished but wise and honorable Dick Gephardt for advice and counsel, both in the upcoming general election and later, during the transition into an Edwards presidency. Intending to impress on his audience that he, too, held Gephardt in the highest esteem, Edwards figured it'd be good to remind everybody that he'd already said as much, on the evening of the Iowa caucuses, the moment it was clear that Gephardt's career was done. "I'm sure you all saw a lot of the speeches that were given after the Iowa caucuses . . . ," Edwards began.

But before he could finish the thought, a voice in the crowd said "Ohhhh, yeah" in that tone of voice a man uses at the office watercooler during discussions about the latest celebrity-weirdo embarrassment. And just like that, in a flash, 200-some-odd Democratic loyalists filled the Portsmouth V.F.W. post with unrestrained laughter. Nobody even had to mention his name. John Edwards' mere allusion to "the speeches that were given after the Iowa caucuses" called Howard Dean--unflatteringly--to mind.

When they begin to laugh at you automatically, you're dead.

David Tell is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard.

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