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Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Connolly Watch 1.28.04

A joint effort by Connolly and John F. Harris makes the front page of Wednesday's Washington Post. The article assesses why Kerry has risen and Dean has fallen. I largely agree with the stuff about why Kerry has improved on the trail by honing his message to appeal to voters and shaking up his staff after things weren't working last year. The reasons given for the decline of Howard Dean, however, seem far more suspect, as I'm sure Dean supporters will note.

Dean crashed in Iowa by winging it. On one graceless Sunday three weeks ago, he told an impertinent questioner at a rural town-hall meeting where he could get off. That evening, he breezed into a crucial debate with virtually no preparation time, and gave a performance that matched his effort. His stump speech, crackling with one-liners and colorful denunciations of President Bush began to fall flat with an electorate more interested in a substantive argument for Dean's candidacy.

If Dean has given himself a second life with his respectable second-place showing here Tuesday, he has done so with some of the same methods that worked for Kerry. His aides say he began to listen to their critiques of his performance. He pushed himself to do things that don't come naturally--talking about his personal side and coaxing his reticent wife out on to the campaign trail. He both toned down and beefed up his speeches, so they were not mere exhortations to the committed but sought to persuade those Democrats who were still shopping for the most impressive opponent to Bush.

All manner of outside factors--such as the apparent retreat of Iraq as a preeminent issue for Democrats in the wake of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's capture--have buffeted the race in ways at least as consequential as the individual performances of Kerry and Dean. But the constellation of factors had a similar effect: they placed ever greater demands on the candidates to demonstrate seriousness. Democratic voters no longer hungered simply for a powerful voice against Bush; they wanted that voice to be a steady and substantial one, according to a variety of strategists within the campaigns and close observers from outside.

Some of the items cited are things that were minor missteps blown up by the media--the incident of Dean's response to the heckler in Iowa and the hysteria about whether Dean's wife was with him campaigning (and why no mention of the screech?). The larger reason given for the turnaround--that Dean wasn't a serious, substantial enough candidate--doesn't make much sense either. Kerry has surged on the basis of a stump speech with such one-liners as "Bring it on!" and "I know something about aircraft carriers for real!"--not exactly the same as delving into the intricacies of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Exit polling I saw on CNN tonight also confirmed that more Democrats who voted on the issues went with Dean, while Kerry's supporters mostly did so because of the belief that he could win against Bush. Clearly Democratic voters have been given the impression that Kerry is more likely to find success in November and they're desperate to win back the presidency. Dean's reputation for making politically damaging statements has hurt him in this regard.

The whole electability argument doesn't make much sense to me because I think you can always make a case that the candidate you happen to like the most is also most electable; "I'm electable if you vote for me!" Kucinich memorably said at one of the debates. Already tonight I heard Chris Matthews repeating the RNC talking point that Kerry is "to the left of Ted Kennedy" which of course is not accurate. This is the same press corps that told us Dean, a moderate governor of Vermont who over a decade clashed with progressives in his states on several matters, was actually an extreme liberal.

Anyway, what I'm getting at is that the media seem to be creating a narrative for the race that I don't believe is truly reflective of what has happened and why.

MORE: Via Political Wire, here's a link to the CNN exit polls cited above. The one I wrote about is "More Important to Your Vote" (scroll a little over halfway down) with choices "Issues" and "Can Beat Bush." Overall 57% picked issues and 33% Bush. Dean's voters cited issues 29% and Bush 14% of the time. Kerry's voters cited issues an equal 29% but Bush 56%.