Josh Marshall

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I was here at the Dean election night party site, arriving a bit before 8 PM, in time to catch the excited reactions to the early projections of a close race. The event room was a cavernous basketball court that held probably more than 600 people (I’m just not a good judge of crowd size). For most of the evening, until Dean hit the stage, the crowd rested somewhere between disappointment and dejection. “Somnolent” was the word I jotted down in my notebook.

Many watched the four wide-screen TVs where John Kerry’s double-digit lead just wouldn’t go away. No catcalls, no upset looks, no nothing --- just taking it in.

Later, a group of us stood on one of the risers twenty or thirty feet away from Dean as he spoke to his crowd of supporters.

I don’t know how it seemed on television (you have me at a disadvantage on that one). But in person he seemed strong and commanding, hitting each of the key points he’s been working over the last week. And though the crowd seemed subdued for most of the evening, they were electrified by Dean, with shouting and cheering and foot-stomping all through his speech.

When it was over, the reporter standing next to me, turned and said: "If he would have given this speech last week, this would be a very different story."

Without talking to everyone in the room you can’t know what people are thinking. And when you ask, as a journalist, you create a sort of Heisenbergian distortion that still keeps you from knowing. But the enthusiasm I saw in the crowd, when they were listening to Dean speak, seemed completely unrelated to tonight’s result. The excitement was all about them and Dean. Where the campaign would be in a week -- good or bad -- seemed like a secondary matter.

I think the excitement would hardly have been much different if his final vote total had been no larger than the number of people in the room with him tonight.

Over the course of the evening I saw various members of Dean’s core staff. And they seemed curiously unfazed by everything that had happened. They certainly weren’t jubilant. But they didn’t seem particularly disappointed either. They seemed like the whole thing went as they'd expected. And they were ready to move on to the next front.

I haven’t spent much of any time with these people. So I wouldn’t be the best judge. But that’s what it looked like to me.

Dean said that New Hampshire had “allowed our camp to regain its momentum” and that “we did what we needed to do tonight.” And I think that’s right. But just barely. I think they're in desperate shape. And I think they know it.

In isolation, this wasn’t such a bad result. Dean took a heavy blow in Iowa, collapsed in the polls, and then battled his way back to what he rightly called a “solid second.”

But Iowa and New Hampshire were his two best states. And now he’s going into seven states which should all be harder for him to win than these two. Some vastly more difficult.

What this race is now about is whether John Kerry can carry this momentum into the Midwest and the South. If he can -- and that's not at all clear -- then it's over.

More thoughts on the state of the race later this evening.

It's about 6 PM. The sky is dark. And, before the sun dipped out entirely, that sky was looking pretty ominous. I'm heading out for the evening now and plan to spend most of it at the Dean party here in Manchester. It looks now like Dean will probably close much of the margin, yet not catch up to Kerry. But I figure that the Dean event is where the most interesting story will be found. Where does Dean place and how do his supporters react to that showing? Coming out of New Hampshire he goes deep into red state America, where the winds won't be favorable. He needs to win the press's judgment if not primary outright. The winter boots are on for the first time this week. The parka is zipped. Lights, camera ... eh, you know the rest.

Yesterday, the day before the primary, my friend Kenny and I hit a final few events and went to a couple of headquarters to get spun once more before the voting starts. First it was a Dean Town Hall meeting at the Palace Theater in downtown Manchester -- this is the one where Al Franken helped take out a LaRouche protestor and, in the doing, got his glasses broken.

(Don't this place provide some decent street theater!)

This was actually a coordinated LaRouchie attack, with shouts, escalating into heckles and then blowing right through to blizzards of four-letter-words. It also seemed to show up some weaknesses in the Dean security detail. We were up on the theater's upper level and had one of the hecklers come down to the ledge, arms looping this way and that, screaming about Cheney, screaming at Dean, mostly just screaming.

He was the second string protestor or rather the second wave, after the first guy got tossed. Security at these sorts of events tends to be a 'C'mon, c'mon, you've really got to leave now' sort of affair. But as he was working up into full-froth a crew-cut three-hundred-poundish all-together not nice looking guy stomped out, extended his arm, grabbed the dude by the scruff of his neck, said a couple unpleasant things, and then proceeded to shake the guy around like a friggin' rag doll, all the while making clear that he really shouldn't have made such a scene.

Kenny and I looked at each other, thinking, "Sheesh, they're literally going to throw that guy out into the street." But a few moments later, as I'm watching Dean, scribbling in my notebook and comtemplating the fate of the LaRouchie in the hands of Dean's Rock'em, Sock'em Robot, suddenly I hear ... "Aga b'dada, yada! yada, Cheney Cheney #$%#@&, Dean Cheney, Beast Man! allooooooo, yiiiiiiigraaaaaahhhhh. Yada! Dean, who the $#@% do you think you ..."

He was back.

How did he get back in?

No idea.

Dean's talk and Q & A was relaxed and assured, though the crowd wasn't as boisterous as I expected. One marquee New Dem was a couple seats down from me, marveling at Dean's prowess and seemingly eager to climb on board.

"If you want to change the president," and this is a close to verbatim paraphrase from my notes, "vote for any of the candidates on the ballot tomorrow. They're all better than George W. Bush. But if you want to change America, vote for me."

He asked supporters to drag friends and associates to the polls to vote for him. "I need you to be draggers for Dean."

Bring everybody. "Bring your kids if they're old enough. And if they're not old enough, then move to Chicago and register them there, and move back."

There was much more on budget-balancing and extending health care then there was on Iraq, and Dean served up his devotion-stirring mix of off-the-cuff and idiosyncratic Q & A.

One moment he's condemning the president's "barbaric approach to stem cell research" and telling the crowd he doesn't "think science should be guided by religious ideology." A short time before he said that Jesse Helms' insistence on withholding dues from the UN -- which Dean said he opposed at the time -- probably did end up pushing the world body toward much-needed reforms.

Certainly, that was the only shout-out I heard to Jesse Helms this week.

After lunch we went to see Clark's brief stop in Manchester (he was hitting each of the state's ten counties, finishing up in Dixville Notch at midnight). We got there just after things were winding down and ran into a ragged crowd -- camera crews, supporters, family, campaign aides -- walking down Elm Street following Clark, who was shaking hands and glad handing from store to store. "I don't know but I've been told, yada yada, yada yada... sound off, sound off, etc." You hear this a lot at Clark functions.

As his crowd parked itself in front of the Merrimack Restaurant, where the candidate was making the rounds, they were confronted by a Kerry crowd at the other side of the intersection. (Kerry has an endless stock of potential volunteers just across the state line, remember.) In response to the Clarkies marching songs, the Kerry crew started chanting "Bring! It! On! Bring! It! On! Bring! It! On!"

It was, I guess, the reductio ad absurdum martial moment this week. Who says this party ain't down with the military?

Later, we headed over to get Lieberman HQ to see friends and get spun a final time. We heard about a new study out predicting that 50% of primary voters today would be independents, which held out some hope, we were told, of a break toward Lieberman, allowing him to slide into third. We'll know soon enough whether there was anything to that, of course. One thing though: You may think Lieberman is the corporate candidate. But his offices in Manchester are decidely ... well, uncorporate. I'd call the aesthetic neo-languid-frat-house, with pizza box accents.

A while later we were at Kerry headquarters, a big, buzzing affair, a hive of activity, with what seemed like about a million more people than at Liebermanville. We stopped in for a moment at one of the back offices for Kenny to reminisce with Bob Shrum about Gore 2000 and get the down-low on what's up with Kerry. Shrum and a Kerry speechwriter were scribbling over what looked like a speech draft. And everybody seemed to be mixing a relative confidence with a measure of finger-crossing. After a bit more milling around we were back to the Palace theater for Edwards' rally around dinner time.

Edwards' crowd seemed a bit bigger and a bit more pumped. But then this was after dinner when it would be much easier for people to come. So I'm not sure how much you can read into that.

I've written a couple times now about Edwards as performer. And on this last night before the voting began, his handlers seemed to be playing to that more than ever. (It was a theater, after all.) Usually some fellow pol or local dignitary will warm up the crowd and introduce the candidate. But this time it was just the disembodied voice of an emcee bellowing out: 'Welcome the next president of the United States, Johhhhhhhhhhn Ehhhhhhhhdwards." And then Edwards tumbles out, thumbs up, all smiles.

For whatever reason, Edwards seemed a bit off his game. He rushed through everything, though with pretty much the same lines throughout.

Edwards has these ridiculously hokey rhetorical questions that he lays on you which become more comical with each repetition. "If what you want is to eat $#%^, live on the streets for five days and comb your hair with a cheese grater, then ahhh'm not yahhhw candidate for president. But if you want ..."

You get the idea.

More to come.

I'm finishing up a column now. So I won't have any posts until the early afternoon -- when, I hope, I'll be posting at some length about the events of yesterday. I've spent several days going to event after event trying to channel the New Hampshire primary gods for some poll-transcending insight into what the results tonight are going to be. But they've left me hanging. I figure it'll come up pretty much as the polls tell us: with Kerry in first, though not so far ahead as the polls showed at mid-week, Dean in second, Edwards in third, Clark fourth, Lieberman fifth. Third, fourth and fifth seem very much up in the air. An independent study that came out yesterday said that there would be a very high percentage of independents voting in the Dem primary this year. So that could introduce some real uncertainty into the poll numbers that we're seeing. One 'feel' I get -- and this is just a gut sense, from what I've picked up at events -- is that Clark may underperform his poll numbers and Edwards over-perform his.

Regular readers will remember that several times over the last couple months I've mentioned that I was working on a review essay on the new literature of empire: the history of yesterday's empires, how we see them today, whether contemporary America is a neo-imperial power, whether that's a good or a bad thing. As you might expect, the essay turns heavily on the changes that have taken place in American foreign policy over the last three years.

I'm glad to say that it's finally out. Or at least it will be out tomorrow in the new issue of The New Yorker.

You can read it online here at their website.

All the tracking polls yesterday showed Dean, at a minimum, stopping his decline and in most cases making up some lost ground. Now the movement seems clear. Tonight's ARG poll has Kerry 38%, Dean 20%, Edwards 16%, Clark 15%.

(ARG now also has tracking polls out for South Carolina, Arizona and Oklahoma.)

I heard Dean on the radio tonight as I was driving back to my hotel. And he sounded very much at ease and commanding -- frank, smart, quick on his feet. Earlier today, I was wondering just where he'd have to place on Tuesday to win in the media's expectations game. And it seemed to me that if Dean could manage a convincing second -- that is, with real distance between him and the third place finisher -- that he could play the comeback kid angle. He could argue, with some merit, that he took a huge hit, fell dramatically in the polls but was then able to fight back into contention by corralling a lot of doubting supporters back into the fold.

The problem for Dean is that none of the February 3rd contests strike me as natural Dean states -- with the possible exception of New Mexico. And a victory for Kerry in New Hamsphire would still mean that Dean had failed to win in two states which seem to play heavily to his strengths.

One more point: I haven't had a chance to write about it yet. But I was struck by the iffy advance work for the Clark event that I went to on Friday, and what I've heard about a few others. (The rally on Sunday was much, much better.) For all the money Clark's raised and the polished Internet presence, this is still a campaign that was cobbled together quickly and then had significant internal shake-ups in its first couple months. I don't want to judge on limited evidence -- which mine very much is. But it's just left me wondering whether it might be a sign of a broader problem.

There’s nothing quite like speeding down a dark New England country highway, frigid outside the car and comfy <$Ad$>enough inside, hitting on just the right song on the radio and playing it really, really loud. And heading north tonight I was hitting them one after another. Sometimes ... well, sometimes Led Zeppelin is just more important than politics.

After hopscotching from event to event in Nashua I found a T-Mobile hotspot at a Borders Books in town and jotted down the events in the post below. After that, I hopped in the car and headed north to a public radio studio in Concord to do Chris Lydon’s The Blogging of the President 2004 show from 9 PM to 10 PM Eastern time (check local listing). I’m here in the studio about to go on the air. I'll be writing up more observations on the events of the day later this evening.

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.

I hit rallies for Edwards, Clark and Kerry this afternoon. A report is soon to follow. Tonight at 9 PM I'll be on this radio show discussing the primary and blogs.

An update on the anti-Kerry flyer I saw last night posted at Dean's Volunteer Operations Center in Manchester. (See earlier post: the Dean campaign says it was posted by an errant volunteer, and not connected with the campaign.) Apparently, they were also leafletted on cars last night at the Democratic party's 100 Club Dinner in Nashua. Someone's handing these things out.