January 29-February 4, 2004
Three Long Days on the Primary Trail
City Paper joins the candidates during their final New Hampshire hours.
A week before the Iowa Democratic Party caucuses, Howard Dean was so far ahead of John Kerry in the Democratic primary race that it didn’t look like a contest. But then, Iowans confounded everybody by putting Kerry in front, with John Edwards ahead of Dean, who ended up a humiliating third.
And if that fall weren't enough, Dean appeared to sink his own boat with the hyperbolic war speech that ended with the "Iowa scream." Media pundits counted Dean out, a loser who couldn't go the distance. But then he bounced back, raising $1 million in four days before returning to the very important New Hampshire as a contender. It was there, with estimates having Dean anywhere from three to 20 points behind Kerry, that City Paper caught up with the contenders during a weekend whirlwind tour that ended with Kerry's latest anointment.
It's noon on Saturday and people with the Kerry campaign are at a small Manchester hockey rink watching the junior senator from Massachusetts play an exhibition game with former Boston Bruins and local firemen.
It's a good campaign move since hockey rules New Hampshire and Kerry skates so well -- and looks so good on the ice -- that he brings to mind a movie star playing a politician who skates.
Kerry mixes it up, does his share of passing, gets the puck and works it up near the goal.
He takes a shot and misses. He takes another shot and whacks it in for the first goal of the game. The appreciative crowd roars.
Off the ice stands a familiar-looking, silver-haired man.
"Are you Gary Hart?" I ask.
"I used to be," he says, smiling.
"Who are you now?"
"Just an ordinary citizen."
Not quite. The good looks that landed Hart in so much trouble 14 years ago are still there, even though he's a little softer around the jowls. He's an attorney in Colorado, here supporting his friend -- like his former campaign staffers -- in a low-key manner, since his support might actually hurt.
From the ice, it's off to Dartmouth College in Hanover. There are eight reporters on the press bus. One's from the Yale University daily, another from the University of New Hampshire paper. Apparently, the big-shot print folks grabbed another ride.
It's a two-hour drive over snow-covered landscape -- woods, frozen rivers, ice-covered ponds. It's eight degrees above zero. Ten days ago, it was 30 below.
Still, Kerry's fans are lined two and three deep along the walk into the auditorium. The staffers are young -- 20s and 30s -- and considerably better groomed than most journalists, a strikingly scruffy lot.
We're directed to the second overflow room, a lecture amphitheater that seats a couple of hundred people in front of a large projection screen.
Kerry's fans look suspiciously like East Coast academia. Liberal Democrats. Probable Starbucks customers. Likely New York Times readers. Possible SUV drivers. The crowd the Republican right likes to say is out of touch with America.
Kerry appears resplendent in a dark suit, light blue tie and pale blue shirt. He removes his suit jacket to get down to business in shirtsleeves, a Dean trademark designed to make him seem less imposing. But Kerry is so elegant that, even in shirtsleeves, his perfectly tied necktie, long-point collar and buttoned cuffs scream Ralph Lauren.
A New Hampshire legislator named Paul Bucha, a Vietnam Medal of Honor-winner introducing Kerry, mentions combat decorations Kerry won for heroism under fire. Then, standing in front of a huge American-flag backdrop, Kerry starts attacking President Bush. He calls Bush reckless and inept in foreign policy and accuses him of having misled America about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. He also slams Bush for the loss of three million jobs.
"The one person who deserves to be laid off," the candidate declares, "is Bush!"
Kerry makes it clear that this is more than knocking an opposition-party president. This is the new face of the Democratic Party, a party that fights back when attacked.
"We will take back this country," he declares. It's a message he'll reuse in his Tuesday-night victory speech. "A guy who plays dress-up for a landing on a carrier? I know something about carriers. I say to Bush, "Bring it on.'"
Outside, a young, dark-haired woman watches Kerry work through autograph seekers and handshakers. Her name is Laura Yanne, a freelance editor from Scituate, Mass.
"We just came from a Dean gathering," she says. "They have some similar positions. I think Dean is more visionary, more electric. I like his desire to redefine the Democratic Party. I'm sorry the electability thing has become more important than the issues."
The next stop is an hour away in Nashua. I decide to move up to Kerry's actual bus and board with no problem. I sit next to a woman who says she's a friend of the Kerrys from New York. Her name is Liz Rich, a self-proclaimed political junkie who serves on the Kerry campaign-finance committee.
"I came up here two weeks ago to canvas voters for John,'' she says, "and people would listen politely, but it was no-sale. Kerry wasn't in the running. That was before Iowa. Now, it's really nice being on top."
Rich notes that the "one thing I've learned [is that] nobody eats on the press staff, and when they do, they eat junk food. People get territorial over their Doritos. I saw one reporter really get wound up at another for taking his bag of Doritos. "That was my meal!' he said."
In Nashua, all seven primary candidates speak to a Democratic audience. Dean, Edwards and Wesley Clark are already done and Joe Lieberman's taking the stage.
His message sounds tired and off-point. The laughlines don't play. The punch lines fizzle. This is, after all, the man who introduced the resolution authorizing war in Iraq. While he seems a nice guy, probably a good father, he's a politician whose time and relevance have seemingly passed. In a couple of days, the results will seemingly bear that theory out.
Kerry comes on to hearty applause and delivers a compressed version of his Dartmouth speech. He does not slight any opponent. It's "us against Bush," he declares.
"He's gotten better as a speaker," says Eric MacLaurin, a 32-year-old teaching assistant from Peterborough and undecided Democrat. "I think Kerry used to be a bit victimized by his intelligence. He would speak so much in answer to a question that he would leave it kind of jumbled. Now he's learned to keep it more direct. I think he improved by having had the run Dean gave him."
On Saturday night, it's back to the Manchester Holiday Inn, which, by 9:30 p.m., is a campaign hub. Tom Brokaw and Sean Hannity are here. So is Wolf Blitzer and, among others, Chris Matthews, who's interviewing Lieberman at a table.
Ben & Jerry's is promoting a new ice cream flavor for the Democratic primary, so an ice-cream company rep gives a cup to Blitzer and quietly asks him to do an on-air taste test.
"I'll do what I can," Blitzer tells her, "but my influence on air is limited."
By Sunday morning, an ABC news reporter from Los Angeles named Gena has been on the road with Dean for two and a half months. She's feeling somewhat crazed and torn.
Campaign reporters love the rush of their work but miss their family, friends and pets. Should Dean not make the strong finish he needs here to continue his campaign, Gena will begrudgingly depart.
"That would mean covering Michael [Jackson]," she explains, "and I'm not anxious for that.''
If Dean beats Kerry here, which is today considered a long shot but a possibility, Gena's in for the long haul. That'll mean South Carolina, Missouri, North Dakota, New Mexico and all the other primaries. The popular thought is that Dean's campaign can survive a second-place finish, even a close third. Anything less, and it could all be over. Well, not so fast.
"We have enough money to keep going through March 2," explains Dean aide Matt Vogel. "We spent a little more on Iowa than planned and we're spending a little more here but not enough to cut the campaign short."
The conversation with Gena turns to press access on the Kerry bus and the lack thereof here on Dean's. Dean, she says, keeps his distance, even from the crew that goes with him to every stop. She thinks that's hurt him. Word is that Clark is totally open with reporters, even taking them shopping to watch him buy a sweater.
As the ride continues, reporters ask another Dean staffer about their Tuesday-night travel plans. Straight to either South Carolina or Phoenix, they're told. No break. Send in the Tuesday-night-results story and onto the next stop.
Dean's last event on Sunday is at Plymouth State College in the southern part of the state. It's a packed house with a campus audience and hundreds of non-college Dean supporters.
The show starts with school kids on stage. Everybody -- minus most of the press -- stands for the Pledge of Allegiance, which the kids recite and then sing during a hyper-patriotic "Mail to the Chief" stage show, based on letters the children wrote to candidates.
When Dean takes the stage, the cheering turns thunderous. He has his wife, Judy, with him. In recent days, she's become the secret weapon, after having been kept out of the limelight until she became politically necessary.
The onstage Dean isn't even remotely like the stiff-necked quasi-zealot I've heard about. This Dean is genial, outgoing and quick to grin. He begins by saying voters are choosing between a change of presidents (dumping Bush for any Democrat) or changing America (dumping Bush for Dean).
He then lists the horrors Bush has visited on America. The destruction of the economy, with additional trillion-dollar tax benefits to the rich coming. The ravaging of health care to benefit the drug companies.
The stance is much like what Kerry and Edwards say, but the record should show Dean said it first. Not only that, but this appearance indicates that he says it much better.
Dean reminds the crowd he takes money only from supporters, like the people in this gym.
"The only people I'm going to owe when I'm elected are you," he says, noting that he's not beholden to insurance or drug companies.
He then reminds everyone that he was the only leading candidate against war in Iraq when Congress passed its resolution.
"I don't think we're going to beat a guy with $200 million in his campaign chest by not standing up for what we believe in," he declares. "[Bush] promises us a trip to Mars, which I think he should take."
Dean gets a huge laugh and ovation but continues without missing a beat. The speech builds, gradually raising passion in the audience. His timing is impeccable; his speaking fluid and convincing. Before long, Dean jokes about his "Iowa scream." After reciting another litany of Bush administration horrors he quietly says, "You know, sometimes when I think about George Bush, I could just scream."
A huge laugh, of course, morphs into a roar of applause before returning to laughter and a smile from Dean, who fares much better in front of an audience than during television interviews. Here, it becomes obvious that the Dean meltdown legend is part media invention, part convenient labeling of a politician who's otherwise difficult to peg. But in the end, New Hampshire's votes will peg him a runner-up who grabbed 26 percent of the vote, compared to Kerry's 39, despite huge turnout in the state next to his own. And those results make
Dean’s two biggest perceived weaknesses -- electability and temperament -- loom larger.
One of the things that sets this tiny New England state apart is how voters get closer to candidates. Monday afternoon, voters in the small town of Londonderry got some face time with Gen. Wesley Clark at a Greek restaurant.
Though a recent party convert, Clark's the answer to Democrats' prayers as a vocal critic of Bush's military adventurism in Iraq. A four-star Army general who served as commander in chief of the forces in Kosovo, he's from a poor Arkansas family, a contrast to Kerry and Dean's privileged East Coast upbringings. It also helps with playing the Southern card of high value in a campaign where the winner will need Rust Belt support.
"He's a good man," says Costas Makris, a white-haired, 67-year-old retired stonemason who drove down from Manchester with friends Steve Stratos and Dimitrios Galanis.
"I like that he's not from a golden-spoon family, like the others," Galanis adds. "You can see that he cares about the middle class."
The restaurant is jammed with more press than patrons. Clark greets diners and gives a short stump talk. He shakes hands with the restaurant owner and his 6-year-old daughter and poses with the kitchen staff for a picture before reboarding his bus.
Today, Clark will stop in each of New Hampshire's nine counties. The tour will end in the northern hamlet of Dixville Notch, where polls open for the 36 registered voters at 12:01 a.m. on primary day. From there, the bus will make the three-hour trek back to Manchester by 6 a.m.
We cross a frozen river and pass a woodscape of trees, which I may have passed several times before. It's been only three days and I'm already losing track. A young female network TV reporter who spent New Year's Eve with Clark and his wife, Gert, says she doesn't even remember the last time she was home.
"Each day seems like a week," she says, "but I wouldn't want to not be here."
She says Clark is totally accessible to the press, Dean's opposite.
"It was even better a few weeks ago, when there were just a few of us, and we got sort of spoiled," she explains before arriving outside Manchester City Hall.
A small crowd of supporters, mostly Army vets, chants his name. When Clark gets off the bus, everybody wants to get closer to the candidate, who radiates enthusiasm with a 200-watt smile despite being hoarse from stumping. A speaker introduces Clark over a bullhorn with, "He'll get us out of the mess Bush got us in. He already did it in Kosovo."
There are cheers of "no more Bush" and "go, Wes, go!"
"We need to bring a higher standard of leadership to this country," Clark tells the crowd of maybe 200 people, including about 40 reporters. "We need leadership that will look out for the next generation -- not put it into debt with deficit spending."
Then, he promises that he can win in November, saying, "I'm not a professional politician. I've never run for public office before. But there hasn't been a Democrat elected president in a long time who wasn't from the South."
After a five-minute talk, Clark begins a fast-paced walk, surrounded by a whirling vortex of reporters, fans and staffers, who jostle for position. He stops to say hello and shake hands with almost everybody he passes. Some get a handshake, others get a short conversation.
"I'm worried about my brother. He's in the service in Iraq," a serious-looking man tells a sympathetic Clark.
"Bush's irresponsible military politics are on the verge of destroying our Army," Clark says quietly. "[I'll] rescue the military from Bush's recklessness."
A younger man in a long overcoat then asks Clark if he supports the Confederate flag.
"Absolutely not," Clark answers tightly.
"You don't support the poor Southern white boys?" the man asks.
"Poor white Southern boys are Americans," Clark says, "and I support the American flag."
Soon, Clark heads to the Merrimack Restaurant, where a beefy ex-Marine bodyguard is keeping a crowd at bay. Inside, the Confederate flag enthusiast spots Hannity, the right-wing Fox news commentator, and tells him he protested Democrats wearing white sheets.
Hannity just tells Mr. Confederacy he doesn't like any of the Democratic candidates.
"I don’t give any of these guys a chance against the president. But at the end of the day, I respect them for putting themselves on the line for what they believe in," Hannity says. "That’s what the country’s about."
Word on the campaign is that Clark hopes to make a respectable showing in New Hampshire and then go all-out in South Carolina, where he is expected to thrive.
"What's your plan after tomorrow?" a local reporter asks.
"I'm not thinking beyond New Hampshire," answers Clark. "I don't look at numbers. I look at people, and I'm very excited by the people I see."
With just six hours and one minute to go before the Dixville Notch polls open, Edwards is speaking at Manchester's Palace Theater. The typical throng of chanting supporters is outside with posters.
The Palace is an old-fashioned movie theater, harking back to full screens and CinemaScope. Several hundred seats are filling fast with a familiar-looking crowd.
I ask a man and woman in their 40s if they're Edwards supporters, or just there to listen.
"We're leaning toward Edwards,'' says Tom Simmons, an unemployed software programmer there with his wife, Rebecca, who's an editor.
"We saw Clark in Nashua," says Rebecca. "He has that war heroism thing down."
"His speech seemed short on substance,'' Tom says. "We're running out of time. We've gotta commit to someone tonight."
The theater is packed and all the balconies are full when Edwards walks out on stage. He's great-looking in a disarming, Michael-J.-Fox-meets-Tom-Sawyer way. With a honey-dripping Southern accent, he introduces his wife and daughter and then begins repeating things heard throughout the state.
"We're going to change America, to make it a place where there aren't two Americas, one for the rich and one for the rest of us," he says. "This is an America where there are 35 million people living in poverty, every day, and that's something that doesn't get talked about because it makes people too uncomfortable."
People, he says, must be brave and determined enough to stand for what is right, not what's easy or popular.
Like Clark and Kerry, he bashes Bush's No Child Left Behind program and a prescription drug bill, which he says funneled billions to the pharmaceutical industry at the expense of seniors. It's good, old-fashioned tub-thumping populism. Edwards makes much of his humble roots -- he is a mill worker's son who became a lawyer who got rich winning consumer lawsuits against Big Business.
The scene makes it hard to believe that only three weeks ago, Edwards was a bottom-of-the-pack contender. Still, it's essential that he win in South Carolina, his next-door-neighbor state, to maintain credibility. Though he finished in a virtual third-place dead heat with Clark in New Hampshire, Edwards has not polled well in the Palmetto State so far.
Edwards says he really wants to go after lobbyists who are ruining the country. Like a trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt, he wants to throw the scallywags out.
"If you give your vote," Edwards promises, "I'll give you the White House! We're trying to do what John F. Kennedy did, which was give the people hope. You deserve a president who believes in you!"
After Edwards leaves the stage, the Simmons' are no closer to making a final decision in a state that could dictate where the race for the White House goes from here.
"I'm still not sure," Tom says. "One thing, Edwards does have electability.''
"I'll probably be undecided," adds Rebecca, "until I walk into the voting booth."
By the next day, all those undecideds made their decisions known, and the candidates scattered about the country for next week's batch of primaries. With his 13-point win in hand, Kerry was off to Missouri to campaign for next Tuesday's biggest prize.
Dean, however, headed home to Vermont to decide where to go from there.