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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.

ARGs latest daily tracking

ARG's latest daily tracking poll has Kerry 31%, Clark 20%, Dean 18%. That means that from January 19th to January 22nd Dean fell from 28% to 18%. In fact, from yesterday to today he fell 4 percentage points.

Remember, a tracking poll like this combines three days of calls together. So this evenings numbers are the first which don't include any calls from before caucus night in Iowa. Pulling that last batch of the pre-Iowa numbers out of mix probably accounts for that rapid four point fall.

Meanwhile, the other tracking poll out tonight from the Boston Globe and WBZ-TV has Kerry 34%, Dean 19%, Clark 14%, Edwards 11%. The big difference there is a much sharper deterioration for Clark.

Late Update: Friday morning's Zogby numbers show the same story for Kerry as ARG, but a less acute fall for Dean, a continued slide for Clark, and no movement for Edwards.

There is an extreme

There is an extreme mood of expectation about this Democratic primary debate tonight. 'The debate' -- and there's always one post-Iowa New Hampshire debate -- is always a big deal for the campaigns and reporters up here. I was up here four years ago, when there was one between Gore and Bradley. But this is a little different. Journalists always have an incentive for saying races are wide open, even when they're not. But this one is truly wide open.

It's not just that it's wide open, whatever that might mean. But the dynamic also seems very fluid. John Kerry has rocketed into the lead here. But that support is clearly soft. It could either solidify with a solid performance or be blunted or even reversed. And the same of course applies to the other candidates.

We haven't yet seen a debate in which Kerry was even close to being the frontrunner. So it'll be interesting to see how the other candidates choose to take up the fight against him.

Early this evening I spoke to Dick Bennett of ARG, the outfit that's been running a daily tracking poll here for a few weeks) and he sees the distinct possibility, perhaps even the probability, of a deterioration for Dean in New Hampshire as bad or perhaps even worse than the one he experienced in Iowa.

Between Clark and Kerry, says Bennett, the gender breakdown (with women favoring Kerry over Clark) remains salient. And the events of the last few days have hurt Dean disproportionately among women. His big strength now, says Bennett, is with young men.

(Bennett says he'll have new numbers out late this evening.)

I would not have imagined that the fall could be nearly that steep. But my own gut sense of the race right now is similar to what Bennett is getting from his numbers. I think Dean is in very bad shape. The issue isn't so much, or isn't exclusively, the loss in Iowa or the whole business with his speech. Rather, I have the sense that he's neutered himself in the final stretch. He obviously took a big punch Monday night. But after the concession speech which, rightly or wrongly, got so much attention, he came into New Hampshire presenting himself, sans red meat, as the successful governor of a small state with success in balancing budgets and expanding health care reform.

That's not a bad message. But it's also not a particularly exciting one, and not at all one that seems energizing enough to turn around the bad momentum he's had all week. They clearly felt they had to make that turn on Tuesday, giving the run of bad press they'd been getting. But I sense it's painted them into a corner.

To get away from being the exciting, offensive candidate, they've made him into the anodyne, boring candidate, just at the moment when he needs a real second wind.

(Along these lines, look at the latest data from the Iowa Electronic Future Markets, where you can invest -- or rather gamble -- on future political outcomes.)

One other thing. Last night Wes Clark had a conference call with a slew of former Gephardt staffers from Iowa, making the pitch that they should sign on to his campaign to head off to various post-New Hampshire states and start organizing for him. The campaign netted about twenty-five of them last night, or roughly a quarter of the folks that Gephardt had working for him in the state.

I had heard from some quarters that the issue might have been money. Another campaign had made a strong pitch for these folks, but simply didn't have the resources the Clark campaign was able to mobilize, and thus lost out. But after talking to various people involved in and knowledgeable the situation my sense is more that Clark's campaign -- not taken up so much with the final fury of campaigning in Iowa -- was more ready to reach out to these folks as soon as the last tears on their cheeks had dried. And that seems to have made the difference.

On Tuesday night, the leaders could be grouped closely enough together that first, second and third place finishers could each really still be viable. So lots of attention, albeit behind the scenes, will be going into shoring up organization and support in post-NH states.