Politics & Policy

It’S a Two-Man Race

Edwards is the only Kerry alternative.

–With a solid win in the New Hampshire primary, Sen. John Kerry has clinched both of the most-watched political contests of any presidential campaign. But the race isn’t over–yet. It counts for something that John Kerry convincingly defeated previous frontrunner Howard Dean in both Iowa and New Hampshire; but it does not count for everything. Kerry did not convincingly defeat Sen. John Edwards in Iowa, and few sensible observers (including Edwards’s campaign staff here in North Carolina, though I can’t claim the same about his New Hampshire operatives) expected the southern senator to do particularly well in New Hampshire, where he had been trapped in the mid-single-digits in the polls until just two weeks ago.

This is a case where a candidate’s spin–Edwards’s claiming victory just by breaking double-digits–isn’t really far removed from reality, despite what fickle media personalities say. Both Kerry and Edwards got a bounce out of Iowa, while Dean and Clark slid in New Hampshire, where they had previously led the field. All Edwards needed was for Clark not to win any delegates and thereby become a real factor in the race. That’s what happened.

I think Edwards is now the only Democrat in the presidential field who can derail Kerry’s seeming inevitability. It will have to occur next Tuesday, February 3, where the top four New Hampshire finishers will compete in seven states stretching from the East Coast over to the plains and down to the south and southwest. While the media coverage and campaign events have focused almost exclusively on the first two contests in the past few weeks, you can’t say the same thing about the serious campaigns. They’ve been lining up endorsements, buying up ad time, signing up volunteers, collecting cash, and making occasional campaign stops.

What’s interesting about this “Mini-Tuesday” set of primaries is that it spans the regional, demographic, and ideological spectra and gives each of the candidates at least a chance of winning a battle, though only two–Kerry and Edwards–can now win the war. It looks like Kerry has won 15 delegates out of New Hampshire and Dean 7. That means that the caucus and primary delegate count (that is, not including super-delegates) going into February 3 is Kerry with 34, Edwards with 18, and Dean with 15.

According to early polls, campaign efforts, and media reports, here are some things to consider about the upcoming contests:

Delaware (15 delegates). Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut was running all right in this small Mid-Atlantic state, but his fifth-place showing in New Hampshire will surely cause some supporters to rethink wasting their vote on a candidacy going nowhere. I suspect that Dean may have a shot at winning Delaware, because Kerry and Edwards won’t waste their resources here, though if it’s the only Dean win next Tuesday it will be embarrassingly small.

South Carolina (45 delegates). Having come in a hot second in Iowa but a tepid fourth in New Hampshire–albeit representing a strong improvement from the 3 to 5 percent frigidity of just weeks ago–even Edwards says he must win his native state of South Carolina to stay in the race. Because of the state’s solitary placement in past election calendars, the news media has been fixating on it to an odd degree. It’s only the third-largest delegate prize next week. Expect media attention to wander somewhat westward if Edwards continues to lead in next week’s polls (the latest one gives him a third of the SC vote, including undecided leaners). A win will still help him a lot, but it won’t be enough by itself to stop Kerry.

Missouri (74 delegates). This is the biggest prize of the night, and offers perhaps the greatest possibility for surprises, given that the field had conceded the state to Richard Gephardt before his campaign imploded in Iowa. Both Kerry and Edwards have scooped up some support from Gephardt’s folks, but that’s about all one can go on right now. The early polls were warped by the Gephardt factor and the fact that Wesley Clark looked like the anti-Dean a few weeks ago. He’s not that now. Missouri Democrats are actually somewhat comparable in temperament and competitiveness to North Carolina Democrats–the Democratic electorate is relatively moderate and has a substantial African-American population. Indeed, similar conditions exist in South Carolina, which is why Edwards would be competitive there even if he wasn’t a native son. (By the way, a new poll by the Kansas City Star shows that Kerry’s name recognition from his Iowa and New Hampshire wins have boosted him in the state, but only to 25 percent, with Edwards at 9 and the rest of the field irrelevant. A large undecided vote remains.) So my gut feeling is that Carolina has a chance to upset New England here if the former gets lucky and the latter fumbles once or twice.

Oklahoma (40 delegates). This is a crucial state for Edwards and, for bragging rights only, Clark. Edwards has already campaigned in the state, stressing his small-town roots and cultural affinity. In fact, he was already here Wednesday, campaigning at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and a church in Tulsa. But Clark was leading in two recent statewide polls, with Edwards somewhat ahead of Kerry for second place. At a minimum, Edwards has to win this state in addition to South Carolina.

Arizona (55 delegates). This state is already moving Kerry’s way with Dean and Clark tied for second. Dean will try to take advantage of the Phoenix-area urban vote, but I don’t think it will be enough. Edwards is lagging behind and probably won’t be much of a factor. If I’m wrong about Dean being toast, it could be due to a late surge here.

New Mexico (26 delegates). This caucus is Dean’s second-likeliest place to pull off a win, after Delaware. Unfortunately for him, it’s also like Delaware in that it offers few delegates. Clark is making a major play for this state, too, meaning he is a spoiler at this point: potentially undermining Edwards in Oklahoma and Dean in New Mexico.

North Dakota (14 delegates). This is a caucus where the candidates appear not to have invested much money or effort. Perhaps they were ceding it to the midwesterner Gephardt. My sense is that it will continue to be below the national radar, perhaps allowing the national momentum from Kerry’s two wins to score another one.

Forget all the talk about Dean waiting to make it a contest in February 7 in Michigan, where he’s running no better in the polls than Edwards, believe it or not. That’s just Dean’s attempt to manage expectations. It seems to me that if Kerry is to be stopped from getting the nomination, it would have to happen in one of three ways: 1) Howard Dean would have to win Delaware and New Mexico and pull off a surprise somewhere else, like Arizona; 2) Wes Clark would have to recover his footing and win Oklahoma, Arizona, and New Mexico; or 3) John Edwards would have to add a victory in Oklahoma or Missouri, or both, to his expected win in South Carolina, setting up a two-man race between a blue-blood New England leftist and a red-blood southern liberal with moderate affectations. The last scenario may be unlikely, but the first two just don’t seem plausible.

John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal, a statewide newspaper in North Carolina. His latest book is Investor Politics.

John Hood is a syndicated columnist and the president of the John William Pope Foundation, a North Carolina–based grantmaker.

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