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THE HOTLINE

BACKSEAT DRIVING: Put a Fork in It

By Mike Murphy

If you listen carefully tonight, you'll hear a sharp crackle as scores of candidate bones break. Five campaigns will end today, even if the candidates refuse to admit it and stagger on for another two weeks.

Election nights must have drama, so there will be bushels of talk tonight about last stands in Wisconsin and comebacks in the Samoan caucuses — you have to say something — but the essential gravity of the presidential nominating contest is undeniable. A short calendar combined with the New Hampshire bounce will make John Kerry the nominee.

The Dean spin is a defense in depth; we are falling back to fight on better terrain. I don't blame them; you are required to have a Complicated Theory of Nomination Strategy to feed the process loving press corps. The Dean High Command needs a theory to sell in order to starve off a complete fall of Saigon type collapse in Burlington. Still, Dean's plan is hokum. It assumes that the strength of the Dean campaign is a static equation and the campaign can freeze, regroup and fight later. Not true. Campaign's a dynamic organism. Losing seven states today will be a vital organ-crushing body blow and the Dean campaign of next week will be even weaker than the hobbled Dean campaign of today. Dean will lose even more support. The Quisling Factor will slither to life as the few party poobahs who came out for Dean during his heyday stampede for the tall grass. I'll betcha the SEIU backchannel to Kerry is already open. Hollywood's warm affection will turn to ice. The media will start a deathwatch and the attractiveness of Dean to voters in critical Washington State, Michigan and Wisconsin will decline even further. Howard Dean is done. If he stays in after losing Washington State he'll wind up in Jerry Brown '92 land, following Kerry around for a while with a few bucks of Internet money and a granola base, winning the odd delegate here and there. Washington State will be Dean's neck breaker in just four days. Without a win there he campaign will completely deflate, broke and broken.

It is fashionable now to trash Dean, Inc. with easy post meltdown hindsight as a horribly run disaster. I don't know all the facts, but my view is that Dean somehow managed to run both the best and worst campaign of the year. I've written before about that bad night in Iowa. Media reports indeed show a terrifying lack of budget strategy and a bad propensity to waste early money in silly places (paid summer media in Texas??). Despite all this the core Dean strategy was smart and correct. Surge through Iowa and New Hampshire and bounce to the nomination. John Kerry is surfing the same dynamic to victory. After a brilliant sprint from 1% to a commanding position, neither candidate Dean nor his campaign could perform at a level to walk that last crucial mile to victory in Iowa and New Hampshire. But give them credit for coming close, while everybody else — even the folks now taking bows at Kerry HQ — thought it was over.

Edwards will probably edge Kerry in South Carolina and drop some balloons tonight. It will not be enough. Edwards needed more out of N.H. to really bounce, instead he is slogging along to hold a base state he "has" to win. Lacking money and time, Edwards needs an Iowa Scream sized gaffe from Kerry to get back in the race. Otherwise he will be trapped in the ghost of Al Gore circa 1988; the southern guy winning some delegates in his region while losing the nomination. Like Gore back then, Edwards has a future. Wesley Clark may get lucky in Oklahoma, but he is a dime store version of Edwards and his wobbly and inept campaign is fading out.

It's almost over and the 1988 parallels are striking. Massachusetts liberal with money advantage wins in the end. Sure, this time Iowa played opposite and helped the Boston guy, but the endgame looks the very much the same.

Hotline Column, Backseat Driving, February, 2, 2004.


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