First Call

It was "Io-way" or the highway for the field of Democratic presidential candidates.



CEDAR FALLS, IOWA -- The last thing I expected to see at a late-night appearance of Senator John Kerry in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, last Saturday night was someone wearing a "REELECT HERENTON MAYOR" T-shirt, but there it was, headed toward the exits while Kerry was still holding forth on the floor of a theater-in-the-round at Coe Community College.

I raced to catch up with the shirt and did so just outside the door of the theater. It turned out to belong to Stacy Luttrell, who had dropped in on the event with her fellow Memphian Justin Cint. I had met them both before, they reminded me, and both were members of the impressively large Deanie contingent who had flooded into Iowa these past several weeks to help get some real votes at last for Vermont governor Howard Dean.

Dean had been the Democratic front-runner in the presidential polls for long enough that he was regularly getting third-degreed by the media and bashed by virtually every one of his opponents -- notably Kerry, who had, in the last several days leading up to the Iowa caucuses, suddenly, almost mystifyingly, risen from the near-death of single digits and taken the lead in polls of the state's probable caucus-goers.

Senator John Kerry, surprise winner of the Iowa caucuses

"Boring" is what Stacy said when I asked what she'd thought of Kerry's act, the only one she'd caught other than that of Dean himself. And it was hard to argue with her. She and Justin were by no means the only people leaving the event before it was over with. In fact, there was a virtual parade on.

One man walked across the hardwood floor in front of Kerry to make his departure, and the candidate thought to ask him, "Sir, do I have your vote?" The man turned and answered, "I'm for Clark." That drew a tentative chuckle from the crowd, though Kerry was game enough to respond, "But he's not here!" (Indeed, former General Wesley Clark wasn't in Iowa, although he was sure to be an obstacle for Kerry and the others in New Hampshire, next stop in the ongoing Tournament of Hopefuls.)

Kerry also encountered some difficulty as he was trying, just before midnight, to wind down an appearance which had only gotten started about 9:45 p.m., because, as the candidate explained, "we had a thousand people at Iowa City," his previous stop.

The implication was that the previous crowd just wouldn't let him go, and that might well have been so, because, the stream of refugees from the event notwithstanding, most people at Coe clearly wanted to get as much as they could from Kerry. They too seemed to be trying to figure out why he was rising.

One reason, plainly, was the senator's dignified, reserved mien, which, coupled with the various reminders of his military background he brought with him (author Douglas Brinkley, whose new book depicts Kerry's Vietnam experience as heroic; and ex-Green Beret Jim Rasmussen, whom naval officer Kerry had fished out of hostile waters away from Viet Cong bullets) was a decided contrast to feisty arch-civilian Dean.

Finally, Kerry pleaded that his pilots, ready to whisk him to Sioux City in the western reach of Iowa, would have union troubles if they didn't get away soon and asked if there was anyone who just wouldn't caucus for him on Monday night if he didn't answer their question. It was an obvious exit line, but he got hands anyway. Two were from people who wanted to hear themselves talk ("They had to get their 15 seconds!" as one audience member groused), but one, from a Palestinian exchange student named Hala Scheeiz, was totally serious:

Would Kerry apply an evenhanded standard to the Israeli-Arab conflict? she asked. The senator's answer, reaffirming the long-standing policy of American friendship for Israel, was not that bad, all things considered, just a tad too cautious and not very original -- not nearly compelling enough to wean Scheeiz away from her affinity for also-ran Dennis Kucinich.

And there's the rub, and the reason why the other big success story in Iowa, North Carolina senator John Edwards, who finished a strong second to Kerry on Monday night, is liable to give fits in New Hampshire to his Massachusetts colleague. And to Clark, and, for that matter, to Dean, if the ex-frontrunner is somehow able to recover from both a poor third-place finish and an overheated post-mortem speech to the faithful in Des Moines in which an obviously wounded Dean seemed at last to be the angry man that his opponents had warned about.

I had traveled with Dean on the cross-country "Sleepless Summer" tour last August and had witnessed a thoughtful, affable, even relaxed man -- the opposite of that stereotype. But when I saw him at two central-Iowa venues on Friday, he seemed spent, whether from the grind of constant campaigning or from the cumulative pounding of his adversaries. His basic speech had not evolved much since August, and he seemed to be begging potential caucus-goers to stay with him until he got his second wind.

Instead, he may be permanently out of breath. But Dean still has a hefty campaign treasury and the loyalty of those Internet masses who had rallied to his call. It is difficult to see them shrugging it all off and falling in line behind an establishmentarian like the austere Kerry, who could prove too dry a wine for the nation's Joe Six-Packs to swallow.

As it happens, they may not have to. Gone is Missouri congressman Dick Gephardt, a past-his-prime, lunch-bucket Democrat who couldn't be redeemed by Oldie backups as oddly disparate as Michael Bolton and Chuck Berry, both of whom had barnstormed with him in Iowa.

But still standing are both the ebullient Edwards, who, at the Waterloo event where I saw him, exuded a rock-star vitality, and Clark, the former NATO commander whose aura of military heroism is enough to outshine Kerry's. (Interestingly, decorated Vietnam vets Clark and Kerry have been the only Democratic candidates to really let themselves verbally scorn President Bush's flight-suit appearance aboard an aircraft carrier in May: "Prancing," scoffed Clark. "Dress-up," sneered Kerry.)

Clark and Edwards have two more things in their favor. Both are border-state Southerners (from Arkansas and North Carolina, respectively), and both had pretty much avoided the piling-on against Dean which had made several of the recent televised debates resemble some WWF battle royal. Perhaps uniquely, they would not be persona non grata to diehard Deanies.

In 1992, Democrats were able to organize a march to power around the figures of two other Southerners, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, both perceived at the time as moderate. Twelve years later, with all of the branches of government now under control of the Republicans, the same formula could work again.

And, funny, that's just what seasoned Memphis Democrat Karl Schledwitz, sometimes a seer, was musing aloud only last week.


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