I hopped from one

January 25, 2004 5:43 p.m.

I hopped from one rally to the next this afternoon, all in Nashua, separated by only a few miles. I saw Edwards, Clark and Kerry — though I only saw portions of each event because they were bunched up on top of each other at 12 PM (Edwards), 1 PM (Clark), and 2 PM (Kerry).

My purpose in running from one rally to the next like this was to get as close as I could to an apples to apples comparison of the crowds the candidates are drawing, their level of enthusiasm, and how on their game the candidates seem. As you know, the primary gets underway in about thirty-six hours, so the charge in an Edwards audience, for instance, three days ago, just can’t be compared to a Clark audience today.

First on my list was an Edwards rally at a high school in Nashua. But, actually, before I get into that, let me make one thing clear: It’s really friggin’ cold up here.

It wasn’t until yesterday. And I spent most of my twenties living in New England. So it’s not like I’m not used to these winters. But it’s cold. Tonight it’s supposed to go below zero for the first time since I’ve been here. And with the wind chill I’m sure the air against my face will feel like it’s getting lapped by ice water just as it has today.

When I walked up to the Edwards rally there was a volunteer holding an Edwards sign, screaming “This is the man who can beat George W. Bush,” like a frosty John The Baptist heralding the Messenger or the end of time. On the inside the weird craziness of the final hours of the primary was on full display.

Edwards may have the niceness campaign. But his folks aren’t above showing off what brickbats the other guys’ are using. In the hall behind the forest of tripods and the underbrush of AV cables and knocked over chairs, an Edwards staffer was telling a reporter he could come by Edwards Headquarters if he wanted to view the attack mailing Kerry was sending out about Clark.

Right, Edwards will hook you with Kerry’s anti-Clark attack mailing.

The political tourists are here too. (Not that I’m making fun of them. I did the same thing in 1996.) A California Poli-Sci prof-cum-TV talking head was there yucking it up with the celeb journalists. And the celeb journos were getting quality time with each other as well.

A short time later I listened in on a reporter doing one of the ubiquitous voter interviews. Reporter: “What do you like better about Edwards?” Voter: “The others have higher negatives.” Reporter: “What do you mean by negatives?” Voter: “Like with Kerry, he’s got bad things about him.”

At this point the back and forth became a bit difficult to scribble down word for word. But the essence of it was that the guy turned to his friend next to him and explained how his friend’s wife was at St. Paul’s with John Kerry. And when she and Kerry were dating at the age of 16 or 17 or something like that, he didn’t … well, you know. Kerry didn’t. “If he doesn’t make moves on a beautiful blonde, how can he be president?”

(As I suspected, St. Paul’s was all boys when Kerry was there. So at least some parts of the story don’t add up.)

The crowd at the Edwards rally, by my count, was about 600 people, all very pumped up, with some undetermined number of others in an ‘overflow’ room somewhere else on campus. A campaign volunteer named Pauly Rodney was getting the crowd warmed up with a lot of razzmatazz that looked most like a high school rally before the basketball game, full of cheers, give me an E, gimme a D, gimme a W … foot-stomping, kids leading cheers, carefully-organized clean-fun exuberance. Showmanship seems to rub off on folks in Edwards’ orbit.

Rodney speaks with a lot of authority — which I learned from personal experience when he rousted me out of the section set aside for dignitaries just before the show got underway.

Edwards’ talk was exactly the same as the one I saw over in Portsmouth at his town hall meeting on Wednesday. This time he had Glenn Close in tow. And he had on a clipped-on mike which magnified the expressiveness of his presentation. Edwards, as nearly as I can tell, never utters a word without one or more hands gesturing in some significant, word-intensifying manner.

He railed at “that crowd of insiders in Washington and their lobbyists”, pumped his fists again and again, smiled again and again and told the audience about “the America we’re going to build.”

I’ve realized that it’s impossible not to believe Edwards is going to be the nominee while you’re actually watching an Edwards event. The certainty wears off a while later, of course. But while he’s got you in his crowd you’re under his spell. Tried. Tried again … No, doesn’t work. There’s some sort of hypnosis. At least in the moment, he’s that good.

The crowd was on fire and Edwards, the master, was wringing every drop of enthusiasm out of them, twisting and turning them, hands aflutter. It was getting near 1 PM so I was on my way to see Wes Clark at Daniel Webster College.

What the veteran journalists often say is that in the last couple days you watch the size and charge of the crowds more than the polls. That’s where the story is told.

When I was thinking of what I’d write this afternoon and this evening, and when I was driving to the Clark event, I had thought the story might be the surging Edwards’ crowds and the more restrained and perhaps smaller ones for Clark. I thought this because of the Clark event I saw on Friday where everything seemed just a tad off key. But that’s not what I found.

Clark’s audience was in a similar-sized room with just as many people (roughly 600 we figured, with others in overflow) and, in their own way, just as charged as Edwards’. There was the same intensity, the crowd waves, the call and response, chants building up to fury and then lapsing away. The same intensity, but less organized — and more boisterous — or not so much directed by one person up on a stage. Everything Edwards is fine-tuned, like Edwards. If these were rival high schools this might have been the one on the wrong side of the tracks.

Clark had practically a whole cabinet of people there to warm up the crowd and introduce him: former Florida AG Bob Butterworth, Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, David Dinkins, Charlie Rangel, an Arkansas congressman and about half a dozen others.

The final introduction and testimonial was from a woman whose husband was one of the three killed in the convoy accident in Bosnia in 1995. This is the one in which one vehicle of three slid off a rain-soaked hillside killing everyone on board. Richard Holbrooke and Clark were in one of the vehicles that didn’t go over and after the one slid over the edge, Clark rappelled down the hill to attempt a rescue, but to no avail.

At the funeral a few days later Clark gave the dead man’s wedding ring (which presumably he had retrieved from the his body at the bottom of the hill) to his wife. It was a very affecting story.

When I saw Clark a few days ago his delivery struck me as a tad rushed. He yelled his presentation a bit, or something — I’m not sure precisely what — was just off key. But today was different. He connected with the crowd. He hit the war issue hard — Bush is someone who “prances around on the deck of an aircraft carrier.”

If I’d expected to glean some clear message from the differences between the intensity and numbers and passion at the Edwards and Clark rallies, it didn’t turn out that way. Each was very different. Edwards is a bit like a high school rally: fun, loud, clean, exuberance, well-drilled. Clark’s event had no less intensity, but it was a bit more rough-edged, grittier somehow.

By now it was past 2 PM so I hustled off to see Kerry.

Kerry’s event was in a cavernous high school gym at another school in Nashua, a room at least twice the size of the other two I’d been to that morning and bisected by a massive Patton-like American flag, which made the backdrop for Kerry’s speech. The visibility was such that I had a hard time getting a handle on exactly how many people were there. But it seemed like many more than either Edwards’ or Clark’s — I wouldn’t be surprised if it were double the number.

As I noted above, I spent most of my twenties living in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. And looking around the crowd I noticed it was well seeded with political notables from both states — several members of the Massachusetts House delegation in the audience, Ted Kennedy and his son Patrick (Congressman from Rhode Island) on the stage, Mark Green — the Dems’ losing New York Mayoral candidate against Bloomberg, and a slew of others. It reminds you that Kerry was the front-runner last winter and spring, before the wagon got upended.

As it happens, though at least 40 minutes late, I made my way into the room (not easy as it was packed) just as Kerry was getting introduced by his wife.

As expected, it was the same speech as I saw in Manchester on Friday — though with a few new flourishes. Mission accomplished gets turned on its head to talk about national security and domestic needs: “Is your mission accomplished?”

The national economy is about “people and products, not perks and privileges.”

Picking up on Bill Clinton’s recent line that people prefer “strong and wrong” to “weak and right” in times of national crisis, he said: “I bring to our party the ability to be strong and right at the same time.”

A bit prosaic, but to the point and somehow it sounded a bit better in the moment.

He’s also adopting the high presidential cant … “and so I say to you” … “in these final hours” … “stand with me and …”

More on all of this later this evening.

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