By Mike Murphy
Two weeks until the Iowa caucuses and three things can now happen. Most likely? Dean steamrolls through Iowa and charges on to the nomination. Second most likely: Gephardt narrowly beats Dean in Iowa and sets up a sharp contest on Feb 3rd (Groundhog Tuesday), which could be a real opportunity to put the good doctor back on his heels. Third, Kerry edges Gephardt for second in Iowa and earns a long shot at a Dean busting comeback in New Hampshire.
What is most interesting right now is how a feverish anti-Dean momentum is quickly building up in the press elite in Washington. You could catch a whiff of it yesterday inside the High Temple of "Meet the Press." The elite media is tired of Dean and wants an exciting new contender to challenge him. That's a dilemma since Dean has already run circles around most of his competition. Media hopes appear to rest on Wesley Clark, but he'll be a paper tiger if Dean wins the Iowa Caucuses and the odd man out if Gephardt defeats Dean.
My view hasn't changed. Unless somebody actually beats Dean in Iowa or New Hampshire, he will be almost impossible to stop. And if Dean wins Iowa I don't see anybody beating him in New Hampshire unless Dean miraculously invokes a Rabbi, a duck, the people of New Hampshire, the Holy Right to Choose Abortion on Demand and the legacy of John F. Kennedy in some sort of stunningly catastrophic and offensive gaffe. Granted that is not impossible with Dean, but...
All this background noise in the process media about who might finish second, third or forth behind Dean in Iowa or New Hampshire doesn't mean beans. It is deck chairs on the Titanic stuff. John Edwards call your office.
So it all boils down to Dick Gephardt; either he beats Dean and changes the entire race or he doesn't. Stop Dean, Inc. should have got behind him weeks ago because Gephardt was the only candidate in the race positioned to stop Dean and he remains the guy with the best shot. But with polls showing him slipping in Iowa it may be too late.
The great irony? Kerry hasn't only blown his own chances as the former front-runner, he is also taking Gephardt down. By clobbering Kerry in the Massachusetts Senator's supposed base state of New Hampshire, Dean has forced Kerry to launch a do or die effort in Iowa. The result? Kerry is drawing anti-Dean votes away from Gephardt and could deliver Iowa to Dean, who will then smoothly roll along to the nomination. Typhoid Kerry might just turn out be Dean's ultimate secret weapon.
Meanwhile back in Georgetown the Washington press corps is once again excitingly whispering about John Kerry. Apparently D.C. love affairs die a hard death. Kerry has always been Washington's favorite (the press always falls hard for the pretty Senator early in any Presidential race). The latest Valentine proclaims that Kerry is now "hitting his stride" in Iowa and will beat a declining Gephardt for second place there and surge on to a great comeback in New Hampshire. Not impossible. I predicted a Kerry comeback myself in Backseat some weeks ago on the theory that he has fallen so low there is nowhere to go but up. Polls are showing some movement for Kerry, but never bet your life on caucus polling. And even if Kerry pulls off second place in Iowa, I think he is still Dean chow in New Hampshire. He's Ed Muskie 2.0.
All scenarios notwithstanding, remember one cold hard fact as we sit here two weeks out of Iowa. Dean was an asterisk one year ago. Since then he has exploded in support. Sure, there is plenty of Dean over-hype. But so far Dean has also succeeded at everything that is hard to do in winning a nomination, far more so than any of his rivals. Washington might think he is in decline, but I doubt anyone has explained that to the likely caucus goers in Iowa.
Again, if Murphy's irked you or if you just wonder why he cares so much about your candidate, email him yourself email@example.com. Also, look for Murphy (wearing his columnist cap) on the road in the next few weeks.
Hotline Column, Backseat Driving, January 12, 2004.