Analysis: The Road From Iowa

This Against the Grain commentary was written by's Dick Meyer.

Not since they bestowed victory on an unknown governor from Plains, Georgia, back in 1976 have the much-courted voters of Iowa given their countrymen such a shocker: Kerry Wins!

He wins in a blowout. It's a whole new ballgame.

And in terms of the expectations game, you might add: Edwards Wins, Too.

Put momentum, energy, message and maybe good looks – the ephemerals of campaigns – into the Iowa winner's circle, too.

And put grassroots organization and ground machinery into the loser's locker room, along with conventional wisdom and the power of political prognostication.

Howard Dean is on the loser's bench, too, of course. Two weeks ago he was the "prohibitive frontrunner" or "presumptive nominee" – certainly he was the man to beat. And beat he is: a distant third place, defeated by two candidates who were given no chance two weeks ago. His campaign still has a slew of strengths: friendly turf in New Hampshire, the deepest pockets, energized workers, the clearest anti-Bush message. But three of those four didn't do him much good in Iowa.

And for Dick Gephardt, Iowa was the end of the road.

So, what's next? As I said, prognostication was one of the losers tonight. But here are a few currents to watch:

  • The photo finish, press corps-loves-it stunner in Iowa could well set up an exciting replay for New Hampshire next week. Just substitute the name Wes Clark for Dick Gephardt.

    Dean commanded a towering, too good to be true lead in New Hampshire for weeks. It was, of course, too good to be true, just like in Iowa. But he's still a force. Clark closed the gap fast in the past week. Kerry always banked on a strong showing in neighboring New Hampshire but was a flop there, until the week before Iowa. John Edwards has polled as an also-ran in the heart of the Yankee north, but last week he doubled his numbers. Lieberman hasn't gotten off the floor, as lifeless as a Democratic bill in Tom Delay's Congress.

    Kerry and Edwards should get a big bounce from Iowa. But that's no sure thing; these are quirky states. In 1984, Walter Mondale cleaned Gary Hart's clock in Iowa, and Hart came back in New Hampshire. In 1988, George H.W. Bush lost not only to Bob Dole, but also to TV preacher Pat Robertson. But he went on to win the Granite State.

    Still, it looks like Dean, Clark, Kerry and Edwards could have a tight slugfest in New Hampshire.

  • A tight finish in New Hampshire where four, maybe five candidates emerge alive and kicking could set the table for the kind of primary feast Democrats have served up since 1976 or 1984 – a long series of showdowns in different states, with different candidates. Edwards vs. Clark in South Carolina. Dean vs. Kerry in Maine.

    In other words, we might see the kind of race we were told was impossible because of the front-loaded 2004 primary schedule.

    Or, we could have a winner by Valentine's Day.

  • Does Kerry reassume the mantle he wore for much of 2002 and early 2003 – namely, frontrunner? Certainly he gets the 2004 Lazarus Award.

    In a CBS News/The New York Times poll released just this past weekend, Kerry garnered only 7 percent of the national respondents; Dean led at 24 percent. His numbers in Iowa weren't much better just two weeks ago. It looked like a weak showing in Iowa would set up a lackluster placing in New Hampshire. Not in the cards now.

    Kerry has not had the fundraising success of Dean or even Clark. But he has a rich wife and Iowa-bestowed pizzazz. He seems to have found his stride not just on the stump, but in his TV ads as well. For some odd reason, his service record from Vietnam didn't seem to resonate with voters until this week.

    Kerry doesn't have Dean's organization. Organization was supposed to matter the most in Iowa, and it didn't.

  • Dean's run is going to get more post-mortems this week than a season of C.S.I. The gist of many will be, in the words of Jimmy Cliff: "The harder they come, they harder they fall."

    But a big win in New Hampshire and Dean is back. He's got the money and the organization to fight for a long time. But from now on, Dean isn't the only "Washington outsider" in the race; he splits that role with Wes Clark.

    Still, the question remains: why did Dean fall so hard? It's hard to imagine that his pugnacious, prickly, in-your-face – insert your adjective here — attitude didn't have a lot to do with it. If so, will the rest of the country share Iowans assessment of his character?

  • Vast amounts of ink and uncountable decibels of cable punditry assessed Howard Dean over the past months and Iowans made most of it irrelevant. New Hampshirites could do the same to a man who has never been in election before, Wes Clark.

    Clark, like Edwards, has stayed positive in New Hampshire. His poll numbers have been going up, as Dean's faded. But Kerry's have been moving too. Unlike Kerry, Clark has been having success in some of the February 3 states: South Carolina, Arizona and Oklahoma.

    Is Clark kicking himself for not competing in Iowa? Could he be tonight's John Kerry if he had? Tell me, Kreskin.

  • Iowa is a huge win and huge vindication for John Edwards. He came out of nowhere in Iowa and decisively beat Dean.

    His nice guy strategy paid off, he's moving in New Hampshire and he was born in South Carolina, the most high-profile February 3 state.

  • Beating Bush seems to be have been Iowans top priority. And Iowans appear to have had a sophisticated approach to supporting the most "electable" candidate. The calculation for many caucus-goers was not simply "Who do I like?" or "Who do I agree with on Medicare?" but "Who can beat Bush?"

    And "electable" is not what Iowans seem to have seen in Howard Dean. The rap on Dean for months among many professionals was, of course, that he was the weakest Democrat in a general election. Iowans dubbed John Kerry and John Edwards as the men to beat Bush. Will that calculation hold across the country?

    There is some irony here. The Iowa caucuses were invented to give activists a greater voice to counter the party bosses and professionals. Thus George McGovern (now a Clark supporter) and Jimmy Carter did well in the early years of the caucus. Now the activists, the caucus-goers, are thinking like consultants.

    Iowa provided one of the most exciting primary shows in years. It was a huge win for John Kerry, a huge step for John Edwards, a huge setback for Howard Dean.

    But one question that probably seems irrelevant to Democrats and reporters tonight doesn't to the rest of the country: is anyone paying attention to Iowa out there in TV land?

    The initial answer seems to be a big, fat no. The broadcast networks are covering the results minimally during the prime time hours. And CBSNews/The New York Times poll released this weekend showed that only 22 percent were paying "a lot" of attention to Campaign 2004 so far; 34 percent paid no or "not much" attention to the race. Independents were the least tuned in, with 37 percent paying little or no attention to the campaign.

    Karl Rove and George W. Bush, I imagine, are well aware of this. And surely that is partly why the State of the Union was scheduled the day after Iowa, to steal the Democrats thunder. Monday night, the Democratic candidates got five minutes or so on network television. On Tuesday night, the President will get his full-hour or so - undiluted, presidential, fully in control of the message.

    And on Thursday night in New Hampshire, the Democrats still standing will go after each other in another debate.

    Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of, has covered politics and government in Washington for 20 years and has won the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Alfred I. Dupont, and Society of Professional Journalists awards for investigative journalism.

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    By Dick Meyer