MANCHESTER, N.H.–Granite State Democrats were treated to a virtual blizzard of retail politics Monday. In vans, buses, and even a helicopter, the Democratic presidential contenders raced from just north of the Massachusetts border to just south of the Canadian frontier frantically looking for votes. Opinion polls put springs in their steps as the race seemed to tighten for the top two spots between Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts and former Vermont governor Howard Dean while General Wesley Clark and senators John Edwards of North Carolina and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut wrestled for the bronze medal in the nation’s first primary.
High noon on a cold, crisp, perfectly sunny Monday saw Dean on stage at the Palace Theater on Hanover Street here. After nearly self-immolating in what has become known as his “I have a scream” speech after placing third in the Iowa caucuses a week ago, Dean was a picture of cool resolve.
After being introduced by a perfectly eloquent Martin Sheen–who observed that “One man with courage is a majority”–Dean took to the stage with his wife, Judy. Until last week, she was known as Judith Steinberg and seldom seen. Dean’s campaign schedule now refers to her as “Dr. Judy Dean.” She joined her fellow M.D. husband at yesterday’s first three events.
“Let me thank President Bartlett,” Governor Dean quipped, referring to Sheen’s character on NBC’s West Wing. In a modulated, relaxed, and steady tone, Dean spoke to a capacity crowd at the Palace. Some 500 or so people filled nearly every seat. The aisles were packed with voters, activists and journalists. Green signs and purple banners reflected his endorsement by AFSCME and SEIU, two major public-service workers’ unions. At least 29 TV cameras recorded the moment.
“You can’t trust right-wing Republicans with your money,” Dean said, neither bellowing nor screaming. What he called George W. Bush’s “credit-card presidency,” Dean predicted, would invoice tomorrow’s grandchildren for the massive spending and deficits today.
Fair enough, but Dean called on a young man in the balcony to offer his story. He said that he moved to Vermont and worked as a dishwasher. Thanks to Vermont’s big-government health system, “I got to see a doctor for $2 and a dentist for $3, and I still got a lollipop.” The crowd laughed and applauded. The man added: “Some people heard Dean scream and ran away. I heard Dean scream, and I woke up.”
The question obviously occurs: If it costs this man’s dentist more than $3 of his time and materials to drill his patient’s teeth, who picks up the rest of that bill? The tooth fairy?
Dean graciously accepted a brand-new stethoscope from a husband-and-wife pair of physicians who support him. He then took questions from the audience about appointing women to his Cabinet, curbing teen pregnancy, and unraveling the Gordian knot that is Palestine.
One questioner then ignored the instructions to use a microphone and started shouting from the audience.
“Why are you covering up for Dick Cheney? You are going to lose!” he screamed. “Drop out of the race. You’re no Democrat. Only Lyndon LaRouche and John Kerry are real Democrats.”
After ranting away for a few more moments, Dean’s security staff and a few Deaniacs managed to yank this crank into the back of the auditorium.
But just then, a second protester stood up and began his own high-volume tirade.
“Dean’s a liar!” he hollered.
At that point, comedian Al Franken rose from among the journalists and others near the stage and said, “Let’s get him out of here.”
Franken and a few others hustled the second man outside. As they did so, the first ill-mannered LaRouchite reemerged, this time standing in the balcony to the left of the proscenium, bellowing as before and looking ominously like John Wilkes Boothe just before he leapt from the balcony onto the stage of Ford’s Theater and landed with a bang in the history books.
Throughout all this commotion, Howard Dean’s fuse stayed long and moist. He focused on the questioner who had the floor, somehow discerned her question through the clamor and gave a coherent answer about Iran’s mullahs while bedlam prevailed around him. Perhaps exhaustion and a cold had tempered Dean. Maybe he had drilled into deep reserves of self-discipline. In any case, Dean remained refreshingly composed as two clowns tried to turn a successful campaign stop into a one-ring circus.
After Dean thanked the crowd and waved goodbye, someone approached Franken who had returned to his spot at the front end of the right aisle. The Saturday Night Live veteran’s trademark horn-rimmed glasses now were held together in the middle with tape. They broke as Franken foiled the attempted Palace coup.
“I never thought of you as a bouncer,” the man said. “Maybe they could pay you do that.”
Franken replied: “I think we security guards deserve a working wage.”
Half a block away, and across Elm Street, General Wesley Clark’s troops gathered outdoors about 30 minutes later. The mercury had climbed to all of 18 degrees by 1:45 P.M. An occasional light breeze made it no balmier. Still, about 250 people were on hand as the former four-star general arrived at Manchester’s attractive, gothic city hall. They had stayed pumped up beneath the sunshine by listening to U2’s “In the Name of Love,” the Eagles’ “In the Long Run,” and other rock hits piped in by the campaign.
“We want a new standard of leadership for America,” Clark said, standing beneath a sign that read, “The Wes Wing.” His voice sounded hoarse already, with miles to go on his all-day effort to speak in each of New Hampshire’s ten counties.
“There’s not been a Democrat elected in a long time who is not from the South,” Clark observed as 10 TV cameras watched unblinkingly.
He wrapped it all up in about three minutes. Then, like the Pied Piper, Clark walked south on Elm Street as his followers followed. Seeing the ensuing cyclone of lenses, cheering volunteers and campaign signs with a silver-haired soldier at its center, one women leapt about four feet out of the way and into a building alcove.
“I’m Wes Clark. I need your help,” the candidate said a few moments later as he shook the hands of two women standing in front of a store. He struggled to hear them through the chants of his fans. He spontaneously suggested that they step into the Benton Shoe Company on the ground floor of the Royal Heritage Building. For the next five minutes, NATO’s former Supreme Allied Commander pressed the flesh and chatted with these two Granite Staters and other voters as handbags and boots sat silently on the sidelines.
Clark soon returned to the sidewalk as his supporters roared. They were louder than Dean’s were outside the Palace Theater. They also were a lot less shaggy.
Clark shook a few more hands and only smiled back as journalists shouted out questions. About a block away, he finally hopped into the green van that would whisk him to his next appearance. Just then, one of his young boosters called out a question: “Can I get a ride to the White House?”
Last night at 8:00, about half an hour north of Manchester, Senator John Edwards met voters at the Rundlett Middle School. It sits in Concord, a town with many clapboard houses painted as white as the snow that blankets their lawns. Near Rundlett’s entrance, a sign that says “School Safety Rules” nicely captures the stern Yankee ethic that still resides in these parts:
Don’t run. Walk
Use appropriate language.
Keep your hands to yourself.
Inside the school cafeteria, Edwards offered a theater-in-the-round performance. Standing near the middle of the room, he spoke with incredible comfort and poise. He was tanned and elegant in a dark blue suit, white shirt and reddish tie. His cordless lavalier microphone let him speak with both hands free to gesture. With a face reminiscent of the young John Ritter, he came across as buoyant and reasonable.
All of that clashed with an ambitious federal to-do list that sounded rough on the pocketbook:
”Raise teacher pay to get better teachers and keep better teachers.”
”Start Head Start earlier.”
”…more after-school programs…”
”College for Everyone,” Edwards’s proposal for free state-school tuition for college students willing to work for ten hours each week.
A federal plan to match $1,000 in savings deposits per family annually.
A down-payment tax credit to help Americans buy homes.
Edwards pledges to “crack down on credit cards that are fleecing people.” As for lobbyists, he said he would “cut them off at the knees.”
This largely socialist agenda sounds less threatening than it should because Edwards is polished and smooth. This was his 100th town-hall meeting in New Hampshire alone. The ten TV cameras in attendance captured a candidate totally at ease. “I hope you’re having as much fun as I am,” he laughed at one point.
A friend of mine who lived in North Carolina until a few years ago said of Edwards: “He’s Bill Clinton with his pants on.”
The man has no lack of self-confidence. He noted that people wondered “Who do you think you are?” when he ran against incumbent GOP senator Lauch Faircloth, a protégé of former conservative Republican senator Jesse Helms. “I took on the Helms political machine,” Edwards continued. “And the result is, I am the senior senator from North Carolina.”
Edwards spoke of “the politics of hope” and invoked FDR’s leadership during the Great Depression and that of JFK at the height of America’s civil-rights struggles. He sounded optimistic, even while dreaming of economic redistribution.
“I’m impressed,” said Concord attorney JoAnn Samson. “I have been undecided until tonight. This man has something uplifting…He came from ordinary roots. He’s got my vote.”
The magnetic John Edwards could give President Bush a run for his money. And the American people a run for their wallets.