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.