In the aftermath of the New Hampshire primary, it appears likely that the Democratic presidential nomination race has become a Dean-Kerry contest. Not only did they finish 1-2, but they seem to be the only candidates with the resources in organization, money, and media attention to run the national campaign that is now needed in the heavily front-loaded primary system.
One can also deduce this probability through process of elimination. Joseph Lieberman, in fifth place with less than 9 percent of the vote, is finished. He has run abysmally and has no obvious prospect of recovery in any state voting in the near future. He is, simply speaking, too moderate for Democrats in 2004. Indeed, he was too moderate for Democrats in 2000, which is why he was forced as a condition of his vice presidential nomination to recant many of his moderate positions on Social Security, affirmative action, and education.
This leaves Wesley Clark and John Edwards, who essentially tied for third at 12 percent, 27 percentage points behind Kerry. Clark succeeded in his self-proclaimed goal of finishing in the top four, but it is not clear that anyone else will consider this a victory, especially since Clark was fighting Dean for the New Hampshire leads just two weeks ago. His collapse was as dramatic as Deans and perhaps more damaging, since Clark had little margin for error. For his part, Edwards failed to leapfrog Clark and, in the end, gained only a small bonus from his surprising Iowa showing. As Lamar Alexander found out in 1996, finishing a stronger-than-expected second or third only helps for a short while. Like Alexander in 1996, it is possible that Edwards peaked in New Hampshire a few days before the primary, hit a wall, and will go no further. He stakes everything on a win in South Carolina, but his buzz is gone.
There is, of course, a chance that Clark or Edwards might pull out a win here or there (Clarks best bet might be Oklahoma or North Dakota, Edwards South Carolina). If they do, they will survive to the next round of primaries. And it is possible that, having extolled John Kerry for two or three weeks, the media may anoint one of them the officially designated “moderate” alternative.
However, this seems unlikely at the moment. First, a victory by either one of them is far from guaranteed anywhere on February 3. Second, because Dean remains competitive and because he is interesting, focus will continue to be on Dean versus Kerry for the near future. Finally, as long as Dean is in the picture, Kerry can claim the mantle of the “moderate,” obviating the need for Edwards or Clark (who is, in any event, closer to Dean than to Edwards on many issues).
Of course, the problem for Democrats down the road is that only in reference to Howard Dean does Kerry appear moderate. In reality, the top two finishers in New Hampshire are left and lefter. Kerry is, after all, a Massachusetts liberal whose last minute push in Iowa was aided by a photo-op with Ted Kennedy. Nominating either one would represent a virtual concession of the entire South to George W. Bush, with huge consequences for the presidential election and potentially huge consequences for the balance in the U.S. Senate, where five southern Democratic incumbents are not seeking reelection. If Howard Dean fails to recover-and, given his distant second place finish and skyrocketing negatives, the odds against recovery have grown long-the effect of his long surge on the Democratic nomination race will still have been tremendous: he is perhaps the only viable challenger who could have persuaded Democrats to vote for John Kerry on the basis of electability.
None of this means that Kerry cant win in November. A lot can happen in the next 10 months, and every election featuring an incumbent is largely a referendum on the incumbent, not the challenger. Nor does it mean that Dean can be completely written off. His fall had more to do with his own mistakes than with any other factor; now that the spotlight is on Kerry, no one should assume that he will make no such mistakes. Alone among the survivors, Dean has the resources to fight Kerry nationally. But he has to win somewhere on February 3, and he has going against him the desire of Democrats to unite before much more blood is shed.
Andrew E. Busch is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.