One of the challenges

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One of the challenges of covering any campaign, especially when you’re on the ground and in a small geographical area like New Hampshire, is not allowing yourself to get too distracted or overly influenced by the buzz and the hype of momentum. Of course, there’s an extra complication: much of the buzz or the hype is real. Or perhaps, better to say, perception (X is on fire, Y’s campaign is collapsing) becomes the reality if enough people perceive it as such.

Let me bring this down from abstraction and Latinate words. Since Monday night, everything has been Kerry and Dean. Kerry’s rise and Dean’s fall. Clark suddenly seems like an out of the way story. And that perception is heightened by a small drop in the polls for him.

Is there any reality to this? Is Clark any less likely to do well here than he was a week ago? In the echo chamber we’re it’s not easy to tell.

My sense at the moment is that Clark really has his work cut out for him. It’s not because he’s done anything wrong exactly as that Kerry has just charged right into the main selling points of his campaign.

Last night at Kerry’s event (the ‘chili feed’ I discussed last night) Kerry’s chat was drenched with military references. (I think the first thing he said was to ask if there were any vets in the audience.)

So he’s got the military stuff and the foreign policy credentials. Or at least that’s his argument. And suddenly coming out of Iowa he seems to have the electability issue on his side (one of Clark’s main issues) — or at least that’s the spin the Kerry campaign is pushing.

(On Kerry’s resurgence and a possible pitfall, see my new column in today’s edition of The Hill.)

My sense of this campaign is that there are really two and a half dynamics at work now here in New Hampshire.

The big fight is between Clark and Kerry. They’re after the same voters. And their pitch to the voters here is similar. Those voters are moderate-ish Democrats, people for whom the electability pitch is an important one, people who warm, for various reasons, to the candidates’ military credentials. So that’s the big fight.

Dean is in another category. His main issue is himself. If he can hold on to who he has right now and get back some of the people who’ve left him then he can probably win. And at this point I don’t think he needs to win big. He just needs to win. To show he can take a punch and that Iowa wasn’t a fatal blow. (Remember a number of guys who became president lost Iowa and even came in third.) But I don’t have the sense — and this is just a gut sense — that the folks Kerry and Clark will be fighting over are the ones Dean’s after or really can get, at least not for the most part.

The half dynamic is Edwards, who might slip through to a high showing if Kerry, Clark and Dean bloody each other sufficiently in the next week. I’m going to an Edwards event this evening so maybe then I’ll know more.

(One more note about Edwards. He’s already been to South Carolina and back since arriving in New Hampshire yesterday morning.)

As I was writing the above, I was sitting in an auditorium at the University of New Hampshire, where Clark was giving a speech on what he would do in Iraq. The bullet points of the speech were: a) the deadline for turnover is a bad idea in that it encourages all the players to game that deadline against us, b) he wants to abolish the CPA and create some sort of new international organization to manage the rebuilding and return to sovereignty in Iraq, and c) under his plan, John Abizaid, the head of Centcom, would report to the NATO Council.

On the personal level, his constant refrain was that he’s done whatever it is that’s needed at various levels of the process. He’s built coalitions, fought wars, worked with diplomats, etc.

Now a few observations about Clark’s speech.

There wasn’t any applause through the entire thing. Not until the end. The issue though wasn’t so much that the audience was nonplused as that Clark didn’t really give them a chance. This was a pretty dense policy speech. And the few lines that seemed like they might have been written as applause lines Clark plowed right through.

The first few minutes seemed a bit tight. It was ably delivered, if a bit rapid. But then maybe about seven or eight minutes in he started to hit his stride. His interest level in what he was saying seemed to bump up. He was a bit looser. And though he was still delivering a prepared speech you could tell that these were more his words, stuff he’d thought about and wrestled with.

And then it hit me. He’s a lot less interested in this campaign than he is with the war-fighting, coalition-building, international relations stuff. This is what animates him. He cares more about his issues than the campaign.

Is that a good thing politically or a bad thing? I think you can play it both ways. Certainly, as I’ve presented it here, it’s a good thing: the candidate who cares more about solving problems than being a politician. But in practice it’s not necessarily so clear. Politics is about interaction with people and audiences. The politicians who do well are generally those who relish it.

If you remember, Monday night I told you that on his “voter calls” at Clark HQ he seemed to be talking to the people on the other end of the line about stuff in the Balkans, things he did the Army and so forth.

So there’s a thread here that you can see when you watch his campaign.

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