Douglas Kiker of the CBS News Political Unit has analysis of the Democratic presidential race.
A week, it's said, is a lifetime during a presidential campaign. Unfortunately, there's no cliché to describe what can happen in two weeks. But, after watching the seismic shifts that have occurred to the Democratic field since the start of 2004, it is safe to say that the race has gone from a perceived slam-dunk for Howard Dean to a five-man scrum that no one in his or her right mind would try to predict the winner of.
How, and why, has this complete realignment occurred? Have some of Dean's backers, or at least some who fancied themselves Dean backers, sobered up and realized that perhaps he's not all they'd hoped for? Has Wesley Clark learned how to be a politician? Has John Kerry's resume – reflecting a lifetime spent preparing for this very campaign – finally started selling? Is John Edwards, the Mr. Nice of Campaign 2004, finally rising to the top tier of candidates because he's stayed out of the mud? Has Dick Gephardt's 16 years of campaigning in Iowa finally started paying dividends?
The answer to all these questions is probably "yes," but the real answer is simple: These days, people – the ones who matter, in Iowa and New Hampshire – are actually paying attention to the race.
The race's tightening is a testament, in many ways, to the process by which the party's choose their nominees. For all the brouhaha about Iowa and New Hampshire not "looking like America," voters there take their job very seriously. They know very well that they are the party's first line of defense when it comes to picking a nominee who can actually win the election.
There's an old saying: There are girls you date and girls you marry. As the specter of a tough general election against a popular incumbent president looms, the question many Democrats seem to be asking themselves is whether Howard Dean is the kind of candidate you bring home to meet your parents.
As The Washington Post's John Harris wrote on Friday: "The question haunting Dean, raised in various ways by all his main rivals in recent days, is whether he stands any chance of exerting appeal beyond core Democrats who share his strong opposition to the Iraq war and his liberal social views, and who raise their fists in agreement with his biting attacks on Bush."
Gone are the days when news of a candidate's difficulty, say, answering how he voted on the Iraq war is buried in the middle of the newspaper. The presidential race is now the stuff of front pages, multiple Evening News segments and "60 Minutes" interviews.
As a result, Democrats who may once have been flirting with Dean are now taking a much closer look at him. At the same time, candidates who've struggled to break out of the pack appear to be doing so in droves as voters give them a second chance.
John Kerry, who has struggled against Dean, has risen almost surreally to the top of the pack in Iowa. His rise seems to have re-energized a candidate badly in need of a pep talk. Last Sunday, when asked by Tim Russert about a Zogby poll showing him lagging in third place in Iowa, Kerry argued that he did not "accept" the survey's results. A week later, the same poll shows him leading the field (although well within the margin of error).
Kerry, downtrodden no more, sounded almost frenetic (in a good way) on Thursday when he asked a crowd of supporters: "I want to ask you a question: Do you like the surge? Are you ready to add more surge? Are you ready to make more surge, more surge? And are you ready to make more and more surge a surprise on Monday?"
Edwards, meanwhile, has crept up to the statistical top of the heap, in part, by playing nice and remaining above the fray. At this point, there's no way to know it that will enough to overcome the relative weakness (compared to Gephardt and Dean) of his Iowa organization. No matter what, though, Edwards has done well enough in Iowa to keep his morale up until South Carolina on Feb. 3.
Gephardt and Dean, meanwhile, are in a duel of organizations in Iowa. Will Dean's get-out-the-new-voters strategy beat Gephardt's union strength? Can Dean's corps of outsiders working on his behalf in Iowa manage the Byzantine bedlam that is the Iowa caucuses?
But despite all the bad news for Dean in the last two weeks – and there's been plenty – things are not all peaches and cream for his rivals. Time and money are short for all of them, and Dean still leads in the national polls, not to mention in New Hampshire. In Iowa, polls don't mean squat on caucus night – it's all organization. And no one has captured the media's heart like Dean.
All these issues could be difficult for Kerry, Clark, Gephardt or Edwards to overcome. But, as we've learned two weeks in a row now, seven days is a lifetime in politics.