Iowa Observations

I was in Iowa writing for The Blogging of the President last week, and I kept hearing – between the shouts for and against Dean, and the softer Midwestern peeks at Kerry and Edwards (and silence about Gephardt – murmurs about Wesley Clark.

‘Why didn’t he come here?’

‘I wish he had at least been in one debate, so we could have seen him.’

‘Yeah, I like him, a lot. But he’s not campaigning here.’

As Clark surged in NH prior to Iowa, Clark fans, and pundits, called Clark’s move to stay out of Iowa ‘smart’ or ‘savvy’. They heralded him for husbanding his resources, and becoming known in New Hampshire. And yet, in hindsight, the picture looks very different. Kerry captured enormous value out of Iowa – momentum, and Edwards and Lieberman are now fighting Clark for share in the NH primary. When Clark pulled out of Iowa, he lost major endorsements; it seems to have been a critical mistake. But Iowa also symbolized something different, and deeper, and more problematic.

And I don’t mean the primary problems, which he may yet be able to overcome if Kerry, who is very good at stumbling, and Dean, who is even better at it, stumble once more. Clark probably should have gone to Iowa, but more importantly, it’s clear that a lot of his support in New Hampshire existed only because it was a one man field in that state. And that means that Clark hadn’t just waned from public perception; he wasn’t even there. It’s a sad state of affairs for Clark, because it didn’t have to be this way.

The Clark Bucket

Now that Dean has melted down his ideological soldiers and his gold reserves in futile attempts to win Iowa and New Hampshire, there is a spot opening up for the unKerry. Senator Gray Davis Kerry of Massachusetts suffers, or maybe, has a talent, for tripping up, and then catching up at the last minute. He runs strong from behind, and weak from the front. He’s now in front, and that means that the place position, which either Edwards or Clark might be able to take, is extremely valuable ground. Kerry is only one stumble, one waffling moment, one embarrassing factoid-shot, away from the ‘waffling elitist liberal’ meme to catch fire.

He has a long list of votes in the Senate to distort, and the internet new politics constituency doesn’t like him, Al Giordiano’s protests to the contrary. When Kerry stumbles, there will be no pro-Kerry Wilgoren Watch or Daily Kos to rise to his defense. There is no army of small donor activists who want on board the Kerry express, because Kerry is precisely about the lack of importance of the small voice. Kerry is about Kerry, and the best that can be said for him, and it is a great attribute, is that he’s not Bush.

What this means to the race, which I am not good at predicting, is that the landscape will be unforgiving to Kerry. If he stumbles, he has few media or new media allies who want him to succeed. This leaves two people to pick up the pieces: Clark and Edwards. They are, at this point, similar candidates.

Edwards has backers who think he’s JFK or Clinton, though they can’t really figure out which because Edwards has no accomplishments to his name, and no base beyond people who think governance comes down to being a good stump speaker. Or, the ‘I can beat Bush because I’m Southern and charismatic’ rationale. Clark has backers who think he’s RFK or the Democrats’ Reagan, though they can’t figure out why he’s been unable to project his magnificent career onto his candidacy. Clark speaks of being a solder, but his message is one of strategic defensiveness. Or, the ‘I can beat Bush because I have national security experience’ rationale. Both are resume candidates, attempting to attract votes based on some non candidate-specific rationale. read more