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Im here at Howard

I’m here at Howard Dean’s Saturday Town Hall meeting at a holiday resort hotel on the small sliver of shoreline that New Hampshire manages to eke out between Massachusetts and Maine. This place is so New England you could lop it off in blocks, pack it in dry ice, and ship it out west for a hundred dollars a shot. The meeting hall is relatively small. I’d say there are a couple hundred people here with a few dozens more of press. A lot of young people, and a lot of graying liberal-looking folks. CNN’s Jeff Greenfield and Bill Schneider are milling around here and there.

Some of the late polls show Dean stopping his slide going into the weekend, but having lost a lot of support since Iowa. This morning’s ARG poll says the deterioration of his support has ended. But they also have him down at 15% support.

Kerry remains miles ahead and still seems to be picking up steam.

When I came in, a Fox News reporter, Major Garrett was doing a live shot, telling his viewers that the Dean spin points to the fact that polls show that they have the highest number of supporters who say they’re sure they’re going to vote for their candidate.

But that sounds like a bright spin on a hard fact. Those are the sort of percentages you would have if you’d spent the last five days shedding all but your most ardent supporters.

One of the peculiarities of this final weekend of reporting is that Dean remains the big story, even as his support falls off and his chances of outright victory in New Hampshire seem to fade. Whether he’s on fire or just burning to a cinder, he still has most of the gravity --- at least for news coverage.

I think this may also be providing an advantage for Kerry. He’s got the momentum and the frontrunner standing. But to a degree he’s not yet the big story. Or at least he’s sharing billing with Dean. And that’s keeping some of the traditional frontrunner scrutiny off him. There's only so much media oxygen to go around.

The chatter among Dean's traveling press is that he bottomed out on Thursday -- in terms of the mood and size of his crowds, and his as well -- and that he's been regaining his footing since then.

At the moment Dean is running about a half hour late and I’m crouched in amidst a small forest of video-camera-bearing tripods on an elevated platform at the back of the hall. Up on the stage are about eight New Hampshire voters on each side of the stage and four big American flags smack in the center against the back curtain.

...

The show got under way with a series of testimonials from Dean supporters. The first is a young woman who introduces herself as a former “member of the disaffected youth you've heard so much about." She met Dean at a Meet-Up in New Hampshire last year and that changed everything. She's followed by a middle-aged man whose son, a school teacher in the reserves, has just been deployed to Kuwait. He's followed by a Vermonter who got a heart exam which may have saved his life because of Vermont's generous health care policies.

Dean gave what seemed like a solid presentation. He has a good mix now of a positive setting forth of his positions with focused criticisms of his opponents. In addition to his opposition to and Kerry's support of this gulf war, he's now adding that he supported the last one while Kerry opposed it.

Dean says he was right twice and Kerry was wrong twice.

He also has a few good laugh lines at his own expense ("Thank you so much. You made me so happy I could scream.") that went over well. At least within the four walls of this town hall meeting, there's no sense that this isn't a campaign that's on its game and looking for a solid result in three days.

At the press conference after the event Dean had what was one of the best one-liners I've heard about Bush administration foreign policy: the president promised a humble foreign policy. What he gave us was one not of "humility but one based on humiliation."

We had some server

We had some server problems <$NoAd$>yesterday afternoon and last evening (in part due to especially heavy readership for the primary) that kept me occupied for much of yesterday and made it impossible to travel up to Keene for Dean's townhall meeting. What I heard from reporters who were there, though, was that Dean seemed very much back on his game and had a very large, overflow crowd.

I wasn't able to shake free of the server problem until less than an hour before Dean's event. And since it was just a tad more than 60 miles away in some traffic I went instead to see Clark at a similar event in Derry.

Clark was pretty good. He's gotten down doing a basic stump speech. But there's a certain lack of intimacy in his presentation. Bluntly, in such large settings, he yells a lot of his speech. Through the event I wasn't quite sure whether I was just too close to the speaker. But I think I had it right. There were also some true advance work follies, which I'll touch on when I write it up later.

Now I'm off to see Dean at another Town Hall shindig in New Castle.

If all goes according to plan, I'll be writing each of these events up (Kerry and Clark from yesterday, Dean today) later this afternoon.

I think theres no

I think there’s no question that Wes Clark didn’t do a great job fielding that question about Michael Moore’s calling the president a ‘deserter’ in the debate a couple nights ago. But I was somewhat mystified by Peter Jennings rather prejudging the question by saying there was no factual support for the charge.

Jennings said, “Mr. Moore said in front of you that President Bush, he was saying he'd like to see a debate between you, the General, and President Bush, who he called a deserter. Now, that's a reckless charge not supported by the facts.”

Now, desertion has a specific meaning. It refers to people in the military who take off with the intent never to come back or who abandon their post at some moment of danger or critical importance.

Given that, it seems pretty clear that a charge of desertion doesn’t apply. But Jennings seemed to imply that the president's military record was beyond question.

Right after ‘desertion’ in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (article #85) comes the lesser charge of ‘Absence without Leave.’ And Jennings must know that during the 2000 election there was quite a lot of reporting from in papers like The Boston Globe among others that the president was repeatedly AWOL during the time he served in the Texas Air National Guard in the early 1970s.

Nor was calling the president out on this seem as beyond the pale. Just before the 2000 election, referring to a six month period in which Bush failed to show up for required drills because he was off working on a campaign in Alabama, Senator Daniel Inouye said “At the least, I would have been court-martialed. At the least, I would have been placed in prison.” Former Senator Bob Kerrey charged Bush (Boston Globe, Nov. 1, 200 “KERREY BLASTS BUSH ON SERVICE SAYS CANDIDATE 'AWOL' IN '70S.”) with repeatedly going AWOL.

Now, as I say, ‘deserter’ seems to be the wrong charge. And it’s certainly provocative. But it’s also pretty clear what Moore was referring to. And being AWOL is a pretty serious offense too. I’ve already said that much in the debate struck me as laughably tilted toward criticism not so much of the particular candidates as criticism of simply being Democrats. But this question signaled a certain hypersensitivity about criticizing the president at all.

I went to a

I went to a Kerry town hall meeting today in Manchester. Later, I’ll discuss in more length, but for now a quick update. Kerry’s delivery and ease on the stump (or I guess we don’t have stumps anymore, barely even lecterns) has become much better. I don’t think there’s any denying this. Success breeds success and confidence breeds ease and a relaxed manner. Both are evident here.

The event got underway about a half hour late --- a few hundred supporters in a basketball gym, with a platform in the center, atop which sat or stood Kerry, former Senator Max Cleland, Senator Fritz Hollings, and a veteran who served under Kerry’s command in Vietnam. Again, there was the saturation coverage of things military and particularly points related to veterans. Only at the end of Kerry’s brief talk was there an oblique reference to domestic policy.

There’s a shadow boxing game going on here. The campaign isn’t so much talking to these voters about Kerry’s military background as it’s signaling (or trying to signal) that this is a candidate against whom President Bush won’t be able to play the patriotism card. Everything here is about who can beat Bush --- either directly or indirectly.

I’m off to a Dean event. More later.

One note about Kerrys

One note about Kerry's strength in this state. As you know, Kerry's been running for a long time. And long before things started heating up in the second half of 2003 Kerry had this place wired. He had lots of the state's Democratic activists lined up on his side. He had former Governor Jeanne Shaheen on his side. And an experienced campaign staff.

Now, after he started to drift in the polls in the face of Dean's surging numbers, all that organizational muscle didn't seem to count for much. But since voters themselves in the state began giving him a second look that organization has played a very important role helping him capitalize on post-Iowa momentum and it seems quite likely to help him harvest those votes very effectively on Tuesday.

In short, Kerry had a lot of latent strength in the state even when he seemed dead in the water. He had a very big sail ready to catch the wind out of Iowa.

And along the lines of establishments and organization, we'd all gotten accustomed to thinking that Dean destroyed the Democratic establishment in the Fall when he rocketed ahead of their candidates, developed a new way of fundraising, and bashed them silly for their feeble opposition to the president. But maybe that's wrong. Perhaps when he really delivered that establishment a fatal blow was in the winter when he got all of them (Gore, Bradley, Carter sorta, Harkin, McGreevey, Kamarck -- yes, we saw Elaine, we saw!) to endorse him and then, with them in tow, drove off a cliff.

Various campaigns send out

Various campaigns send out rapid-response emails to journalists during and after debates. I got six tonight from the Lieberman campaign. Two were pushing Lieberman's strengths; four were hitting other candidates. And all four of those hits were hits at Clark.

I was late to

I was late to get my credentials for tonight’s debate. So I spent the second half of yesterday and the first half of today haggling with Julie at ABC media relations over whether or not I could get a seat at the filing center for the big event. She was nice enough. But she kept me hanging till the end about whether she’d have a place for me when I got there or whether I’d be relegated to the spin-room --- the place where everybody goes after the festivities are over to be spun in circles by the several candidates’ handlers or the occasional candidate who doesn’t have anything better to do.

In any case, I didn’t want to trek out only to find I wouldn’t have a place to set up and write out notes while the event was afoot. But that really wasn’t the issue. There was something deeper motivating me. Covering these debates almost always involves me in an odd process of denial. The ugly truth is that I think the best place to cover a debate is probably from your hotel room. A hard to face fact; but, I believe, a reality.

Seeing it in person would certainly add something to one’s reportage. But you never see it in person. Generally how it works is this: You’re in a big complex and there’s one large hall set aside for the actual debate. In that room you have the candidates, a few of their handlers, the moderator/questioners and the audience. Oftentimes you’ll have a tiny handful of journalists there too --- but only ones from the highest echelon of the elect. Maybe a Koppel or a Mitchell --- folks like that.

Everyone else is in a big room somewhere nearby with a bunch of long school room tables arranged as they might be for an SAT test in high school. And space after space at those tables is occupied by journalists with laptops open, a phone at each station, perhaps some other paraphernalia nearby or a parka, watching the debate on a series of big TVs.

In other words, they’re watching the debate on TV just like you are. Only they’re doing it in a big room with all the other journalists.

Now, this can be kind of fun, because you get to see a lot of other people you know, and a number you haven’t seen in a while. And you get a very good sense of how other reporters think everybody did. But that can be a pretty skewed view, an echo chamber in the making in ways you can probably imagine, even if you don’t spend much time talking to the really egregious above-it-all conventional wisdom types.

So, like I said, sometimes it seems to me that it’s best just to watch it on TV --- since that is, after all, how the real audience, people at home, see it.

But, as I said, that’s a hard truth to face. So what to do? I decided I’d watch it at some public place and watch people's reactions. Since each of the campaigns chooses one restaurant or pub for their supporters to watch at I figured I’d go to one of those, and I ended up at Kerry’s event at a place called the Black Brimmer (who knows?) on Elm Street in Manchester.

My little experiment didn’t turn out to be any better really than watching the whole thing on TV. The Kerry debate watching party turned out to be … well, a party, and sort of a loud one at that, with occasional calls for everyone to pipe down when Kerry got asked a question. They weren’t there to see the debate, but to see Kerry, who was scheduled to show up for a victory party of sorts after the debate.

There was one thing that made it worthwhile: Carole King. She’s up here supporting Kerry: I think she did some sort of benefit concert for him a couple days ago. In any case, before things got under way, and against my better judgment, I went over and told her what a fan I was, to which she responded graciously. But once that was over, figuring my dignity probably couldn’t withstand any more hits like that in one evening, I found a place to sit down and watch the debate.

Now, again, it was a raucous affair. So I couldn’t hear perfectly. And there were the periodic turns back over my shoulder at King for the occasional swoons. But, those distractions aside, I thought everyone did more or less fine.

I didn’t think anyone stole the show. Nor did I think anyone did badly. (Though wasn’t that Sharpton Federal Reserve question a bit awkward?) Dean was fine. Edwards was fine. Clark seemed basically fine --- though he was thrown questions which kept him on the defensive.

Kerry, I thought, did a bit better than fine. He seemed to have down the practice of looking past the other candidates, literally and metaphorically, and throwing down the gauntlet at the president. It wasn’t perfect. But he was laying claim to the status of presumptive nominee and no one else on the stage really even tried to knock him off that game.

In part I was surprised that Dean didn’t do anything more than he did or try in any way to shake things up. But I think that’s the difficulty of his position. In the last week Dean has essentially switched places with Kerry in the polls. And he seems still to be falling.

He desperately needs to shake up the dynamic of the race in time to recover some ground before Tuesday. And yet his people have decided he needs to be on his best behavior to arrest his downward slide in the minds of the state’s voters. So it’s virtually impossible for him to do anything to shake things up. As I said before, I think he’s painted himself into a corner.

More broadly, everybody basically did fine and no one made any bad mistakes. And since Kerry has the momentum and is rallying support, that means the debate was a win for Kerry, perhaps a big one.

A few other observations.

It’s certainly not a representative sample. But of the people near me watching the debate at the Kerry event, the only candidate they seemed to heckle or make snide remarks about was Clark.

Another point: what was with the line up of moderators? You had one questioner who is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, another who is the head political writer for a fiercely conservative newspaper, another who was a soft-soap local anchor man, and Peter Jennings. That tilt gave the questioning an unmistakable skew. Next time there’s a Republican primary debate I’m hoping they’ll take the same approach and have the questioners be, maybe, Tom Oliphant, Molly Ivins, Matt Lauer and Tom Brokaw.

After the debate ended I felt like I’d had enough and didn’t need to stick around for Kerry. So I drove back to my hotel, unloaded my stuff, watched a few minutes of chat shows until I became too disgusted to watch any more and then headed over to the Wayfarer Inn, the hotel bar which some journalistic worthies --- probably Broder or something --- decided decades ago is where reporters covering the primary go to hang out and kibbitz. Or at least it used to be the place to go. I had a late dinner there last night with a couple friends and it’s been remarkably dead this time. So tonight, finding no one I felt like talking to, I sat down at the bar with my notebook, ordered a beer, and started jotting out some notes for future posts.

A short time later Mickey Kaus walked in to the bar and came up to me and asked, “Where were you? I was sitting next to a seat with your name on it. But you weren’t there.”

Apparently Julie had come through for me after all.

Compare and contrast this

Compare and contrast this piece in the Boston Globe about Senate Republican snooping into Democratic staff memos and this one in Friday's New York Times. The further decline of a great paper.

I'm too swamped with campaign coverage at the moment. But I'll try to follow up on this. For now, look closely at the discrepancy in the accounts of just what the Democrats were told.

TPM hard at work

TPM hard at work, typing away on the laptop, at the Clark event on Tuesday in Durham, New Hampshire. Pictures from the AP.

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