THE BIG-NAME ENDORSEMENTS for Howard Dean began as the Iowa caucuses drew near. In December, Al Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2000, lauded the ex-Vermont governor as "the only major candidate" who was right about Iraq. Gore urged Democratic voters to halt their infighting and rally behind Dean's antiwar crusade. He added this grave note: "I don't think the stakes have ever been as high in our lifetime."
Gore was followed by Bill Bradley, who called Dean "the Harry Truman of our time." Next came Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who insisted Dean would "give Americans the opportunity to take our country back." And last weekend, Jimmy Carter offered a semi-endorsement, saying he's "particularly grateful" to Dean for sharply opposing the war in Iraq. Carter's son, Chip, had already joined the Dean campaign.
Meanwhile, labor unions representing a majority of Iowa's unionized workers endorsed Dean over their one-time favorite, Dick Gephardt. An army of college kids rushed to work for Dean. And commentators on radio and TV and in print concluded stopping him from winning the Democratic nomination was all but impossible. Dean might even "run the table" by winning all the primaries.
On Monday, Iowa Democrats revolted. By favoring John Kerry and John Edwards over Dean, Iowans said no to establishment Democrats who sought to impose Dean by their endorsements. They said no to the supposed inevitability of his nomination, no to shrill and angry opposition to the war in Iraq, and no to uncivil attacks on President Bush.
It was a quiet but unmistakable rebellion. Rank-and-file Democrats voted pragmatically, not out of hatred for Bush or the war. In decisively rejecting Dean, they turned against a one-issue antiwar candidate best known for his harsh criticism of the president. Their strong preference was for candidates--Messrs. Kerry and Edwards--who scarcely mention the war at all in their stump speeches but have far better prospects than Dean for defeating Bush. Iowa Democrats chose political sanity over political suicide.
The national media's entrance poll of caucus-goers had a striking finding: 75 percent of Iowa Democrats disapprove of the Iraq war, yet the vast majority of them backed Kerry or Edwards. They did so knowing that both had voted for the congressional resolution authorizing the war, since Dean had saturated Iowa with ads bluntly informing them of that. But even first-time caucus attenders who showed up in record numbers rebuffed Dean.
What issues motivated Iowa Democrats? Only 14 percent said the war. Far more cited the economy (29 percent) or health care (28 percent), the conventional Democratic concerns along with education (14 percent). Less than 1 percent said endorsements affected their vote. Most pundits, however, had treated the endorsements as significant milestones on Dean's path to the Democratic nomination. By nabbing Messrs. Gore and Bradley, Dean supposedly showed he's a mainstream Democrat and not a fringe or protest candidate. Harkin's anointing, it was said, would elevate Dean in the eyes of Iowa Democrats. Words of praise from Carter would give him stature. None of this happened.
Messrs. Kerry and Edwards soared in Iowa without benefit of big-name endorsers. Kerry's home-state colleague, Sen. Edward Kennedy, appeared the day before the caucuses but only at one event. Edwards mostly campaigned alone, often in rural areas.
Rather than endorsements or organizational prowess, the Iowa outcome was shaped the old-fashioned way--by events, effective campaigning, and sheer luck. Dean's focus on Iraq suffered when Saddam Hussein was captured before Christmas. That deflated the war in Iraq as a front-burner issue.
A week before the caucuses, Dean dealt himself a blow. At a campaign event, a Republican retiree, Dale Ungerer, urged him to stop his "slam, bam and bash Bush rhetoric." Please, Ungerer said, "tone down the garbage, the mean-mouthing of tearing down your neighbor and being so pompous." Messrs. Kerry or Edwards or Gephardt might have deflated the confrontation or simply ignored Ungerer. Dean did neither. "George Bush is not my neighbor," he responded, irritated. Then he told Ungerer to sit down. "Now I'm going to have my say." The incident, shown on TV all over Iowa, underscored Dean's lack of personal warmth or charm, traits that voters usually find attractive.
In contrast, Edwards mounted a charm offensive in Iowa, characterizing himself as the candidate of uplift and hope. It worked. His personality may have lured as many voters as Dean's abrasive style drove away.
Kerry got lucky. A former Green Beret officer whose life he had saved in Vietnam, Jim Rassmann, idly flipped through a book about Kerry and read a passage about the rescue. He promptly contacted the Kerry campaign--this was three days before the caucuses--and agreed to come to Iowa, endorse Kerry, and tell the story of the rescue in public. His appearance transformed Kerry's service in Vietnam from a biographical item to a moving narrative. Better still, Rassmann identified himself as a registered Republican. His was an endorsement that did help.
Even with Dean sinking in polls, evidence that endorsements weren't working may not have reached New Hampshire by last Saturday. Wesley Clark, who skipped Iowa in his bid for the nomination, appeared with a dais-full of political figures who've endorsed him. Among them were former Arkansas senators Dale Bumpers and David Pryor, speechwriter Ted Sorenson, leftie propagandist Michael Moore, and Mary Frances Berry, once head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.
That wasn't all. General Clark had a new endorsement to trumpet. It was George McGovern, who lost 49 states as the Democratic presidential nominee in '72. McGovern didn't create much of a ripple, but Gen. Clark's premier celebrity endorser might have. Too bad Madonna wasn't there.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.