Josh Marshall

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ARG's Dick Bennett seems to think that Dean is falling quickly into third place in New Hampshire. Today's numbers are Kerry 27%, Dean 22%, Clark 19%. But a further breakdown of the numbers, provided on ARG's site, shows steeper deterioration for Dean and some uptick for Clark.

As noted in the earlier post, we went tonight (this was written Wednesday evening) to see a John Edwards town hall meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. A few days ago I saw James Carville say that Edwards was the best stump speaker he’d ever seen, even better than Clinton, or something to that effect. So I wanted to see what all the commotion was about.

I had a mix of reactions and opinions. Or, really, I had an arc of opinions over time.

For most of the time Edwards was doing his presentation, putting on his show, I hadn’t the slightest question what Carville was talking about. While I was watching, in the moment, that is, I also didn’t have much question that Edwards would be the eventual nominee. He’s that good.

His comfort level with a crowd, his ability to roll with and into their moods and reactions, and his ability to craft his talk into a resonant story (a narrative, as we used to say) is simply light years beyond what Kerry or Clark can manage. (Dean is sort of in a whole different category --- he tries for something different.) He’s down-to-earth, gesticulating all over the place, with folksy aphorisms and punch lines all put in the right spots, but in an unforced, uncontrived matter.

He’s funny and folksy, in a campaign sort of way.

With most politicians in these sorts of settings I watch and see the disjuncture between what they are doing and what they should be doing, what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s something like their discomfort quotient, or perhaps the way you can see into their grasping for what the right way is to connect with the crowd or a given voter. With Edwards there’s none of that. He’s a natural. His ease seems total --- and you can easily see the echoes of years of working juries in the court room.

When you hear his talk about ‘the two Americas’ (with one living in perpetual insecurity and another ‘having whatever they need whenever they need it’) you think: Yes, he explains it all exactly right, in a way that would cut right into the president’s deepest political vulnerabilities.

When I watch these guys one of the things I also watch for, either semi-consciously or quite deliberately, is, how will the Republicans go after this guy --- either on substance or on tone and demeanor and life story? With some of the contenders it is painfully obvious. But watching Edwards I had a pretty clear sense that he’d scare the president’s political advisors --- a lot. They talk up the trial thing. They make that clear. But I’ve never thought that would get them much traction.

And yet, an hour or so later, after his presentation and after and Q& A, I had a bit of a hard time remembering quite what I was so dazzled by. It put me in the mind of one of those old clichés about light Asian food: filling at the time, but a few hours later you’re hungry again.

These are just quick impressions from observing one event. I wanted to write a post which conveyed --- in as unmediated a fashion as possible --- my immediate impressions of watching Edwards work a room for the first time. The above isn’t intended as a blanket judgment about a whole campaign and a whole candidate. But in this one case I did have the experience of being truly wowed and then, later, feeling that the whole thing was somehow a bit thin.

I'm dumbfounded. The Washington Post's Dan Balz refers to 'bloggers' and their role in political coverage in his headline campaign story in Thursday's paper.

Alex and I are here at the VFW Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire for what's billed as John Edwards 100th Town Hall Meeting. In other words, we're here to see if Edwards is really the all-out, all-time master of the universe when it comes to working a crowd with his homespun, personal touch, stump-speech speaking style. You know, mixing his personal story with policy chat. So far the one thing I can see is that at an Edwards event everyone is pretty like Edwards. Maybe it's all the Lands End, L.L. Bean clothes?

Late Update: Some people misunderstood this post. It seems pretty clear to me. But lest there be any confusion, 'pretty like Edwards' means 'attractive like Edwards', not that they look a lot like Edwards.

I keep hearing that Kerry has stolen John Edwards talk of there being 'two Americas.' Maybe so, but Edwards got it from Benjamin Disraeli.

Here's the story I'd like to see someone write.

Who really has what level of organization in what state?

Monday night Eli Segal, Clark's campaign chairman, told a group of us that Clark, unlike Kerry, had organizations and lots of support in the states that come right after New Hampshire. Is that true? Or, to put it a different way, does he have a lot more than Kerry? And how about Dean? He's been pouring money into post-New Hampshire states for a while. Where is he in Arizona and the rest of those states? And how about Edwards, who's always banked a lot on hitting his stride in the South?

One hears a lot of general comments about this stuff. But I haven't seen any solid reported pieces in a while that bring it all together.

This becomes increasingly important because the candidate who comes out of New Hampshire strong may face others who've done a lot more work on the ground in those states than he has. If it's Kerry, is Segal right? Will he lack money and organization on the ground to fight against what still might be a crowded field? Consider for instance that we could see Kerry winning but with Dean, Clark and Edwards all near him in vote totals.

Another issue here is money. Clearly Dean and Clark have the most on hand. But I've always thought that the Internet funding model which Dean spearheaded and Clark picked up, changes the dynamic in a fundamental way. In the past the problem was always that longshot candidates would do well in New Hampshire and come out of the state with tons of momentum. But they just didn't have the time to translate newfound support into political giving and they got worn down over the following weeks by better funded and better organized candidates. That happened to Hart in 1984 and to an extent to McCain in 2000.

With Internet fund-raising I don't think it works quite that way any more. I think it creates a much more frictionless universe of political giving where a big rush of support could be quickly harvested in the form of political cash.

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.

Along the lines of last night's post about what I see as Dean's poor post-Iowa strategy, see the post on the front page of his website this morning. The first half of it reads more like a history or an obituary of the campaign than a promo for it.

Not unexpectedly, John Kerry has <$NoAd$>made a big jump in this morning's ARG tracking poll. The Numbers: Dean 26%, Kerry 24%, Clark 18%.

The poll analysis reads ...

While Howard Dean has a 2 percentage-point lead over John Kerry in the 3-day average, Kerry has a 1 percentage-point lead in the 2-day average (sample size of 508 likely Democratic primary voters) and Kerry has a 5 percentage-point lead in the one-day sample on January 20 (the sample size of 302 likely Democratic voters, theoretical margin of error ± 6 percentage points). Also, from January 19 to January 20, Wesley Clark is up 1 percentage point and John Edwards is up 3 percentage points. There is no change for Joe Lieberman.

Zogby is also running a tracking NH tracking poll now and his numbers (Dean 25%, Kerry 23%, Clark 16%) are broadly similar.