Back to the Future

The Democrats' presidential primary has come full circle. John Kerry, the once and future front-runner is back on top — just like he was a year ago — with endorsements, money and momentum. It's hard to believe that just a month ago the party and media establishments were getting used to the idea of a Howard Dean nomination.

Then Iowa happened. And the scream. And New Hampshire. Suddenly Dean himself is telling the world he does not expect to win anywhere on the first day of multi-state voting (Feb. 3). Instead he's the insurgent again, running an outsider's campaign against the Washington insiders. What a roller coaster!

As a journalist, it's great when conventional wisdom, however short-lived, gets upended. That's true even when you buy into it yourself. Take the recent lesson of Iowa. We all had learned from past events there (and elsewhere) that organization matters more than polls. And I have never seen anything as impressive as the organization that Dean assembled in Iowa. Even David Yepsen, the Des Moines Register's revered political expert, was reluctant to discount the former Vermont governor's chances of winning on the night before the caucuses. Now, we have a new lesson — late momentum trumps organization, especially when turnout is high.

Going into the seven events of Feb. 3, Kerry looks poised for another big rise on the roller coaster. But it's still a roller coaster, and this primary season has raised a lot of puzzling questions. Here are two:

First, what does the Kerry comeback mean?

Voter after voter said electability was the key — and that after a series of missteps by Dean they began to see Kerry as more "presidential" — more able to defeat George W. Bush — even though Kerry's performance hadn't changed THAT much since the days when party insiders were writing him off.

It seems that Democratic primary voters are basing their own choices on that they think other voters might do in November — rather than voting their own passions. Don't forget when Dean was riding high, Democrats were saying they thought his toughness, his willingness to stand up for his beliefs, his ability to raise money and energize activists made him the best man to beat Bush. So what happens if Kerry stumbles or starts to look weak against Bush? Will that depress Democrats' enthusiasm — the key to turnout?

I doubt very much that core Republicans support President Bush in such strong numbers just because they think he's a "winner" — they believe in him as a leader and are in agreement with his policies and ideology.

For Democrats, "electability" may be the number one criteria — more than any single issue or character trait — but it seems an awfully abstract and intellectual way to pick a nominee.

Second, what does the Dean collapse mean?

Set aside for a moment the mind-boggling story of the disappearing $31 million — not even the most profligate dot-commers had a burn rate to beat the Dean campaign.

More important in the long run is the implication for long-term party strategy. A few weeks ago, even Democrats who worried about Dean's November viability were blown away by what he had accomplished. He said he would beat Bush by expanding the party itself, bringing in new people — young people in particular. His phenomenal fundraising, fueled by Internet savvy, seemed to be doing just that.

Obviously, those new voters didn't show up in Iowa or New Hampshire and no one expects droves of them on Feb. 3. So I wonder what if anything Dean's legacy to the party will be. He had a huge impact on the race by forcing nearly all his rivals to adopt his populist war cry and sharpen their rhetoric against the war and the president. But the legacy depends on what the Deaniacs do now.

Were they just a children's crusade, soon to evaporate? Or has Dean actually created something another candidate might tap into with a decentralized campaign that empowers the grass roots? Is there a chance the party itself could capture this lightning in a bottle?

Stay tuned.

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