Is John Kerry back from the political dead? Maybe, but don't write off Howard Dean yet. That's how the Democratic presidential race looks after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
I was surprised by Kerry's first-place finish in both contests But on second glance, perhaps it wasn't that much of a shock.
The things that put Dean at the front of the Democratic pack last fall -- opposition to the US invasion of Iraq, his lack of insider credentials and his willingness to hammer President Bush at every opportunity -- seemed to work against him in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But it wasn't so much that voters rejected the so-called "anger" of Dean or questioned his electability as it was that Dean was the recipient of some of the most concentrated sliming of a candidate by the press and by his opponents that we've seen in recent years.
Sam Smith, editor and publisher of The Progressive Review and a long-time observer of Washington politics, nailed it when he wrote after Iowa that Dean's biggest problem was his failure to properly bow down to the permanent power culture.
"Dean failed to accept the fact that before you can get elected by the people you have to be selected by the crowd in charge," wrote Smith. "You don't just run for president in the Democratic Party (unless you're a Sharpton or Kucinich doomed from the start); you ask permission nicely just like Clinton did. Show the elite that you want to come to Washington to serve them, not lead others. ... It's the world's most powerful private club. If you want to get ahead here the first thing you've got to do is shut your mouth. And show you respect the people who really run the place. Dean didn't do that."
Kerry is part of that private club and is in better position to take advantage of being a member. But the early part of the campaign was less about the Washington club and more about the people standing outside peering through the windows. They saw how the club members betrayed them with the club's support of President Bush's war plans. They flocked to Dean last summer and fall because he wasn't in the club.
This spooked the Democratic Party establishment as well as their handmaidens in the press. Heaven forbid we elect a candidate who rejects milking big money donors and offers an alternatives to the tapped-out policies that have led to complete Republican control of all three branches of government.
The press was happy to help. Most of the coverage of Dean in the last three months looks like reporters dusted off the stuff they wrote about John McCain and changed a few words around. The steady drumbeat of "Is Dean Nuts?" stories had its effect in terms of raising questions about Dean's temperament.
But we know that if Dean was as wooden on the campaign trail as he was when he was governor of Vermont, the campaign reporters would've dusted off the "Al Gore is stiff and boring" stories and recycled them for this campaign. As an outsider who didn't suck up to the press, there's no way Dean is going to get a fair shake. If it is said that politics is show business for ugly people, what does that make journalism?
Dean hasn't been a great campaigner and his long-time tendency to be blunt to the point of brusqueness doesn't always go over well. But Kerry hasn't been much better. "Aloof" seems to be his middle name. But what put Kerry over, besides vigorously playing the war hero card, is that Democrats badly want to beat Bush and many seem to question whether Dean is up to the task.
Kerry has the best credentials and the most experience in the Democratic field. Dean trumped Kerry early with a better and more creative campaign organization and with his opposition to the Iraq invasion. Those two advantages for Dean got taken away when Kerry finally got his campaign organized and when Saddam Hussein got captured.
The race in New Hampshire in the end was about the home field advantage for Kerry. This helped erase Dean's lead, which was in the 30-point range as recently as a month ago.
New Hampshire really is two states. The cities and towns within 50 miles of the Massachusetts border like Concord, Manchester, Nashua and Portsmouth are where the money and political influence is and it's where the candidates spend most of their time.
More than half of New Hampshire's population lives in Hillsborough and Rockingham Counties -- the two southern counties that are part of the Boston media market. The people here -- many of whom are transplants from Massachusetts -- get their news from the Boston television stations and read the Boston newspapers. They know John Kerry well. Vermont doesn't register in the consciousness of the average voter in this part of the Granite State, except as a socialist ecotopia filled with granola munching, Volvo-driving, latte-sipping, Birkenstock-wearing hippies.
Dean got his early support in the Connecticut River valley towns nearest to the Vermont border -- such as Keene, Walpole and Hanover. The Boston media has little influence in these places, and these places are more liberal than the rest of the state.
Granite Staters came out in force for the primary. Turnout was at record levels around the state, with a large number of independents crossing over to vote in the Democratic primary. Combined with the big turnout in Iowa, it's a good sign for how things might go in November.
The only thing we know for certain after Iowa and New Hampshire is that this race is not over.
There are seven more primaries and caucuses on Feb. 3, and 12 more primaries in the days between Feb. 6 and Feb. 27. There will be about 1,500 delegates up for grabs in the 11 states that hold primaries on March 2. These contests, more so than Iowa and New Hampshire, will determine the eventual nominee.
Randolph T. Holhut was a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited The George Seldes Reader [Barricade Books]. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.