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The Sound of the Surge: Campaign Notes

Dateline: Iowa City, with my BOPNews colleague Matt Stoller.

You can listen to John Edwards’s speech at the Dubuque County Democrats here: Part One Part Two Part Three

You can listen to John Kerry’s speech at Iowa City here: Part One Part Two Part Three

     The sense we’re hearing from Iowans is this: “we’ve been to the doctor, now we want a second opinion.” There is unmistakably a big surge and churn of uncertain opinions. John Kerry and John Edwards are the buzz. There will probably be a record (still small) caucus turnout. But this migration in thinking could well lead back to the best organized candidacy, that of Howard Dean. Dick Gephardt makes four among the possible finalists, but he feels more and more like a tired family obligation. Wesley Clark is the very strange absence in Iowa. He would surely be at the top of the surge here on the eve of the caucuses. He dealt himself out of a very promising Iowa opportunity, it turns out, but he has also given himself a strategic spotlight in New Hampshire. So the scene is full of ironies and swerves yet to come.

     Howard Dean has all the right positions: anti-war, anti-Bush, politically courageous, but well, something about his brusque manner rubs raw against Iowan sensibilities. There’s a reticence among Midwesterners – polite, kind, thoughtful (we were pulled over by a cop for running a red light last night, and the darling prince ended up just helping us with directions). They like their politicians to think before they speak. And Howard Dean, though he represents caucus goers’ universal enmity towards the Iraq war, ‘shoots from the hip’ a bit too often.

     There’s a funny sort of amnesia developing among the anti-war Iowa democrats which amounts to a sort of amnesty for the Senators who opened the gate to George Bush in Iraq. The anti-war consensus is wide and deep, but precisely because people are not fighting about the issue anymore they treat it like the past, almost Vietnam. Everyone gets it wrong once in awhile. People seem to be looking for two things: a positive outlook and a President. John Edwards is finally reaping the benefit of being the “nice guy in a nasty race.” John Kerry brings an air of command and the rugged old demeanor of some sort of Washington monument. In conversation with Iowans we don’t hear a lot of the anti-beltway sentiment that animates the Dean blogosphere and the Dean rationale – that the smug Senatorial class just doesn’t get it.

     The talk in the last few days is all about the Kerry and Edwards surges, and a rising turnout for what has traditionally been a cult event. But who’s actually losing support? Our guess is that it’s Gephardt who may have asked Iowa’s help one time too many.

     The volunteers canvassing the streets are Dean’s, looking glum but still numerous, bewildered at how a candidate that makes so much sense to them could make so little the people that, for this political moment, matter. But they are still here, and we suspect that will make the difference.

     We begin to imagine three levels of politics in this final churn. The internet realm is where the self-organized Dean campaign has made a fresh and potentially historic force for 2004. But then there is the media zone that drives the polls, a media zone where Howard Dean has been hammered in debates and in the press for anger, gaffes, shrillness and other mostly invented sins. Third, under everything is a foundation of paleo-politics, the bonds of union hall, farm organizations, and the traditional democratic party forums we’ve been sampling. It’s the mix of these three layers of history and political technology that makes the mystery. For example, Newsweek’s ‘Doubts about Dean’ cover story that makes news as much it reports it drove record numbers to the web where they sought their own non-Newsweek information on just who this guy is. So while the paleo and media narratives still have their effectg, there is another world, the Google world, which is telling a different story.

     And this is where the caucus format come into play. While John Edwards, John Kerry, and Dick Gephardt have certainly forgiven themselves for the war, it’s not clear that their supporters have done anything more than bury their war votes under a dirty blanket of rationalizations. In a straight primary vote, well, these tensions might never be teased out. But the caucuses involve speechifying and consensus building. The web has shown that the candidate’s ability to sell himself matters less than his supporters ability to sell the candidate. Dean supporters are very persuasive and will not allow all those war rationalizations to stand. When confronted directly with an accusatory speech from a fellow and Dean-trained Midwesterner on who was there for you when it counted, will the Kerry/Edwards surge meet its match?

     We’re letting Kerry and Edwards speak for themselves in the audio files here. So make your own guess as to what is suddenly working for them. Kerry’s act as Lazarus is more than a little spooky, and all the more impressive. The Boston Irish guys are getting credit for the new Kerry marching discipline–traveling guns like Mike Whouley, the new campaign boss, and faithful pros like Congressman Ed Markey who came out to speak for Kerry in Dubuque yesterday and stayed to work the phones along with a flock of Kerry-supporter Catholic nuns at his side. Kerry himself, bounding out of the shadows behind Al Sharpton in the December national polls, bellows and booms again like a real contendor. He closed strong last night for a crowd of 500 or more at the Capital Mall in Iowa City. “If George Bush wants national security to be the key issue of this campaign,” he shouted, “I look forward to reminding him: ‘Mr. President, I know something about aircraft carriers for real. And if you want national security to be the central issue in this campaign, I’ve got three words for you that I know you understand: Bring it on.'”

You can listen to John Kerry’s speech at Iowa City here: Part One Part Two Part Three

     John Edwards acts and talks and walks like a rock star crossed with a home spun country lawyer. Techno music booms as he enters Dubuque’s airplane hangar of a civil center, and then, he works the crowd like a jury, inhumanly making eye contact with 500 people simultaneously. He sprays good feelings and hope: “This country was not built by cynics. It was built by optimists.” Then comes a laundry list of how America can do better: ending special interests, improving health care, allowing everyone to go to college, overcoming racial problems, attacking poverty. He ties each policy to a strand in his life: someone close to him who was ill, his difficult journey to pay for college, his rejection of special interest money, the racism he saw as a youngster, the poverty he knows back home. It feels like a courtroom performance, and he wins his case–and a lot of applause from both the conservative farmers and the lefties waiting to hear Dennis Kucinich.

You can listen to John Edwards’s speech at the Dubuque County Democrats here: Part One Part Two Part Three

Remember this about the Iowa caucuses: most Iowans won’t go, and many we meet on the street are are happy to tell you they have no interest, no confidence, no loyalty to party or this process. Only about 125,000 – 150,000 people – 4% of the state – will turn out on Monday. According to Chet Culver, Secretary of State of Iowa, this is in a state where 95% of potential voters are registered (up from 89% four years ago); 100,000 voters have been brought onto the rolls over the past twelve months alone.

     There will be other problems in deciding just what Iowa means. The first news reports on Monday evening will not be caucus results, but rather network entrance polls. The late night results could look quite different. And then there’s the matter of exceeding expectations, the Iowa way to win without winning. And beyond that: the matter of “bounces” into New Hampshire.

    Are these real problems? Depends who you ask. Iowa clearly relishes being first in the nation, but some of the folk we’ve talked to do not like the caucus format, preferring a primary because it’s more representative. One beautiful girl, torn between Edwards and Kerry, thoughtfully listed the merits of each, and then mentioned there was no way she could make it to the caucuses. She’s working on Monday.

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