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Op-Ed

Event Summary: The Democratic Race: A Quick KO–or a Long Brawl?

After a month of stunning developments in the race for the Democratic Party nomination, a Brookings panel of experts assessed Senator John F. Kerry’s emergence as the frontrunner, Howard Dean’s precipitous fall, and President Bush’s chances of winning reelection in the fall.

“This race looks so different from past races in so many ways,” said Brookings Visiting Fellow Anthony Corrado, citing the role of the Internet, the divisive nature of Bush’s presidency, and Dean’s rollercoaster candidacy as examples of the race’s peculiarities.

Looking to upcoming primaries, panelists wondered if Kerry’s ride to the nomination will be a smooth one. Brookings Senior Fellow Thomas E. Mann said that Kerry was the likely nominee, but he offered two scenarios that could potentially trip up the Massachusetts senator.

“It requires one of the other candidates having a string of victories,” Mann said. “Edwards is the only plausible alternative. That means Edwards must win Virginia, Tennessee, and then Wisconsin, setting the stage for a two man showdown on Super Tuesday, where free media makes up for the impossibility of serious media buys in California, New York, and the rest.” Mann also said that that intense media focus on Kerry and his long Senate legislative record could cause problems for the candidate.

The panelists agreed that Kerry’s surge was just as unexpected as Dean’s decline. Dean, once the maverick frontrunner in the Democratic race, has seen his political and financial fortunes dashed by poor showings in the caucuses and primaries and by his infamous “I have a scream” speech in Iowa.

“He needed to do a better job understanding the American psych on the war,” said Anna Greenberg, vice president at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. “His Bin Laden and Hussein comments expressed an utter lack of how important it was for Americans to capture Hussein and to not be embarrassed in Iraq.”

Mann agreed, saying that “some of his comments were literally true, but did not speak well of someone aspiring to be a trustworthy president.”

Corrado suggested that Dean’s unraveling had as much to do with a flawed electoral strategy as it did with personality, which may suggest why Dean recently replaced campaign manager Joe Trippi with Roy Neel, a longtime aide to Al Gore and established campaign veteran.

“Howard Dean was following the ‘Bush Model’: raise a lot of money, be the frontrunner, and build lots of organizations in different states,” said Corrado. “But he spent an enormous amount of money on early television, particularly in states voting after New Hampshire.” Corrado suggested that Dean could have rebounded from his early stumbles had he kept a cash reserve to use after Iowa and New Hampshire.

When panelists turned to the possible vulnerabilities of President Bush in the general election, they suggested that he faced more bumps than previously thought. Recent polls show Bush’s approval rating at an all-time low, and he is running behind Kerry in polling matchups.

“I see him as deeply vulnerable,” said Greenberg, who cited the uneven economy (and the perception that Bush is a poor steward of it), the war in Iraq, and his policy priorities as potential thorns for Bush. Additionally, “there is an amazing amount of energy in the Democratic primary electorate and Democrats overall are consumed with beating Bush.”

So strong is the Democratic anger against Bush that voters have made electability a primary condition for support.

“What the Democratic primary voter thinks is that Kerry can beat Bush, and beyond that, he may not care about much else,” said Adam Clymer, political director at the National Annenberg Election Survey. He was quick to note, however, that Kerry has yet to face serious competition from Republicans.

“Kerry’s Senate record hasn’t had any particular scrutiny,” said Clymer. “It’s a record with nineteen years of votes,” giving Republicans ample evidence to raise questions about his legislative priorities.

Brookings Senior Fellow E.J. Dionne, who moderated the discussion, noted that political analysts have focused on the Democratic horse race, not substantive issues, but he said this was inevitable at this stage, and perhaps even necessary.

“After all, how can you cover baseball without looking at the standings?” he said.

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