Dick Gephardt had been dogging Howard Dean for a week, and at last night’s Iowa debate for Democrats, it showed. Gephardt, still boiling over the loss of major union endorsements to Dean, realizes only a win in Iowa will keep his White House hopes alive. Working what he must believe is the soft underbelly of Dean’s campaign—fiscal conservatism—he questioned Dean’s budget-cutting skills. He also cast aspersions on Dean’s anti-war credentials, for good measure.
The former governor looked trapped. He pouted and stewed, failing badly to stay above the fray. “I most certainly appreciate all this attention I’m getting,” he managed, unbelievably. Later, he confessed, “I’d like to slow the rate of growth of this debate, if I could.” This was more convincing. He also kept saying “pooh-poohed,” and that just sounded odd.
Dean was actually double-teamed. John Kerry picked last night to seem more presidential, and less like an econ professor on a long sabbatical. His hair looked shorter, with maybe some slick in it. His bright blue tie radiated experience. “The French are the French,” he said with a wink, lamely watering the lush Francophobia still in bloom around the nation. Someone somewhere knew what he meant, no doubt, and cackled.
So while Gephardt landed the body blows—suggesting that Dean the Illiberal actually cut programs to Vermont’s neediest while he was governor—Kerry threw harassing jabs at his Medicare record, lots of them. Even Tom Brokaw, the moderator, got a shot in, asking Dean why, after receiving a medical deferment from Vietnam, he had spent the next year skiing. (Brokaw did his job, though, and mostly served up tough questions all around.) Of the front-runners, only John Edwards and Joseph Lieberman left Dean alone, and Lieberman only because he was barred from the debate.
Dean, bloodied, stumbled toward a better showing on trade issues. Then he fell backward onto his rickety platform for Saudi Arabia, which he buffed up for the debate. Referring to some mysterious event 75 years ago, he said the Saudis had “sealed a deal with the devil.” He was not, presumably, referring to the concessions the Saudis granted American Standard Oil in the late 1930s.
Kerry and Dean both made a point of saying America needs to reach out to other countries, without saying when that process should start.
John Edwards looked uninterested in the turf battles last night, and this seemed by mysterious design. Whatever the reason, it worked. If beating Bush next year will require a Clinton-esque sangfroid—smile a lot, and try to say something thoughtful—then Edwards, whose poll numbers among Dems remain low but steady, might be a useful model for the other front-runners. And if Kerry, Dean, and Gephardt continue to chase Pyrrhic victories, Edwards may yet find himself an opening.
Then again, demeanor might be irrelevant. A Time/CNN poll released last week found that if the election were held today, not one of the Democratic contenders could unseat President Bush. General Wesley Clark had the best showing in the poll, losing by only seven points. Last night he looked like a student in detention, helped along through remedial math by Brokaw.
But never mind—the Republicans are betting that this election will be all about national security, and so is Clark. The question is whether Democrats figure out what the rest of the country is thinking—before it’s too late.