Josh Marshall

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So more about my chat with Dick Bennett at ARG.

As I’ve noted in some earlier posts, the big question I’m trying to get a handle on (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) is just why Kerry is surging right now. Not just in Iowa, but in New Hampshire too --- which is really the bigger question in my mind.

One thing Bennett pointed out struck me. By his numbers, each of the major Democrats in the race is quite popular with New Hampshire voters. (He says the only one who has significant negatives is Lieberman.) So if you talk to Dean voters or Clark voters, they like Kerry too. And vice versa.

Bennett’s theory is that this whole race is about who can beat Bush, and that candidates like Kerry --- until quite recently --- have been completely missing the boat by talking about their plan for the environment, or their plan for this, or their plan for that.

What people care about is who can beat Bush. Beat Bush, they reason, and everything else will fall into place. So who cares what your plan is.

As I’ve noted earlier, I had been thinking that Kerry would have a very hard time (perhaps an all but impossible time) winning back a large following in New Hampshire after he’d lost it.

But that logic was based on the premise that people had found Kerry wanting, had decided they didn’t like this or that thing about him. If that were true then you figure they wouldn’t go back to him. So if they left Kerry for Dean, and then soured on Dean, they’d go to Clark or perhaps Edwards rather than going back to Kerry.

But if Kerry’s approval ratings remain high and if he looks like a winner coming out of Iowa --- someone who knows how to win a campaign and someone who might be able to beat George Bush --- then many of those old Kerry supporters who’ve been ditching him over the last several months might be willing to hop back on board. And quickly.

Bennett gave me the sense that he thinks Kerry could quickly jump back to the levels of support he had last year. At that means up in the thirty percent range.

Two other points. Bennett’s view was that Gephardt and Edwards are too low in the polls now in to take full advantage of a big bounce out of Iowa.

The sense I get right now is that this is a Clark/Kerry race in the state. Not because Dean isn’t in it too. Of course he is. But because Clark and Kerry are after the same group of voters. That fight could get pretty intense.

A few quick notes ...

First, John Weaver has joined the Clark campaign. And that's a big deal.

Weaver was McCain's guru in 2000. And after the 2000 campaign he -- following what many of us considered the logic of McCain's increasingly progressive turn -- himself became a Democrat. I think he changed his party registration (and started working for Dems) in 2001.

In any case, this match-up has a history. Before Clark ever got into the race there was a heavy mutual courting going on between Clark and Weaver. But it never came off.

Another point. In my previous post, I said I wanted to understand more about why Kerry is surging in Iowa and New Hampshire. (In some ways, his New Hampshire jump surprised me more than Iowa.) I just had a long chat with Dick Bennett, the guy who runs the ARG daily tracking poll. And I think I may now understand -- or at least have a better understanding of a key part of the picture.

I'll explain more on that front in a post a little later this afternoon.

Finally, I can receive email no problem while I'm here in New Hampshire. So keep sending them. But it's fairly difficult for me to send TPM email, largely because Verizon's wireless Internet service turns out to be the biggest disaster in the history of the universe. So if you don't hear back from me, that's probably why. But keep sending because I am receiving and reading them.

Everyone and everything, of course, is on hold until we get the results tonight out of Iowa. But one sense I get about this race right now is that no one understands just why John Kerry is surging so fast in the polls. I don't think the other campaigns understand it. And I half suspect, though I haven't spoken to them yet, that even the Kerry folks themselves don't.

I don't mean this in the sense that it defies comprehension that voters could be rallying to Kerry. I've always been a fan of his. But why now? What's changed? Especially when many of the voters Kerry is picking up now must be ones he once had only to have them abandon him. For the other campaigns, you really need to know why people are turning to Kerry to figure out how to stop them from doing so.

The ARG poll today is unchanged, but the analysis says ...

While the 3-day results are unchanged and the daily trends show ballot preference for Howard Dean holding steady, John Kerry continues to gain at Wesley Clark's expense. Win or lose in Iowa, the attention Kerry is receiving from Iowa should be enough to push him in front of Clark for second place.

That sounds right to me. At least for the couple days out of the gate in New Hampshire. But as the last week or two have shown, all but the last week or two of a campaign in a small state like Iowa or New Hampshire can be prologue.

Kerry versus Clark could be the most intense battle in New Hampshire. Because they, I suspect, are in many ways fighting over the same few slices of the pie.

Those mortar rounds found by the Danish soldiers earlier this month turned out not to have any chemical weapons in them. A false alarm.

Frankly, I'm a bit surprised. They seemed to have a fairly high degree of confidence in the initial field tests. And it wouldn't surprise if there were other shells that did have chemical munitions buried somewhere in the parts of Iraq that were combat zones during the Iran-Iraq war.

After all, many thousands of them were used at the time. And perhaps there was some situation (one can speculate in various directions) in which a small cache was buried as a crude means of battlefield disposal.

Who knows?

In any case, while it would be an important safety issue to dispose of such stuff properly, it would of course be irrelevant to the question of what weapons or weapons capacities Iraq maintained in 2002 and 2003.

Amazing. Look at these numbers. From the highly respected Des Moines Register poll, out late this evening ... Kerry 26%, Edwards 23%, Dean 20%, Gephardt 18%.

Amazing how well Kerry's doing when we all know his campaign was over months ago, right?

Kevin Drum's got a great, great catch here that you'll want to read. Believe me, you've gotta see it.

I think we can say this is getting interesting.

The new ARG New Hampshire poll out late this evening has Clark and Kerry in a virtual tie (Numbers: Dean 28%, Clark 20%, Kerry 19%).

A couple new sites to check out.

The Dean campaign has put together a section of their site ("Bloggerstorm") which has RSS feeds from people with blogs who are on the ground in Iowa. I figure they're probably mostly Dean supporters, volunteers who've come into the state, and so forth, but not exclusively. In any case, it's a neat idea -- a fun way to get different perspective on what's going on on the ground in Iowa. Take a look.

The Columbia Journalism Review has a new site ("Campaign Desk") with on-going media criticism and watch-dogging of 2004 campaign coverage.

Kevin Drum has the most concise, on-point run-down on the Clark testimony silliness.

As Drum says, "The nickel version is that Clark testified before Congress in 2002 that Saddam was a dangerous guy and it was appropriate to put a lot pressure on him. Then after the war was over he wrote an op-ed for the London Times congratulating everyone involved for having fought a brilliant campaign."

The issue here is what it means to be 'anti-war'. I've said I suppose a million times now that Clark was a consistent opponent of the president's policy. But I've also said that calling him 'anti-war' misses the mark. I say this because in our politics this phrase 'anti-war' has a meaning that goes beyond one's position on a given use of military force. It signals a general tone -- one that simply doesn't apply to Clark and leads to all sorts of innocent and in other cases not so innocent misunderstandings.

So for instance this very anti-Clark editorial in the Florida Times-Union says Clark now has no credibility because his congressional testimony "hardly sound[s] like the words of a war protester."

A 'war-protestor'. You get the idea where this goes.

Similarly, Mickey Kaus says "it's impossible to square this London Times article with Clark's current antiwar criticism. Not only is the tone the opposite of Bush-bashing, but Clark seems to have forgotten that it was "the wrong war at the wrong time," as his adviser Jamie Rubin characterizes his current position."

This is priceless on a couple levels. Apparently, if a pundit decides you're a 'bush-basher' and then finds you've said something generous about the president, it means you've been untrue to your bush-bashing values. I don't know quite what to make of that.

More to the point, though, I think we've got a more muted version of the Times-Union's 'war protestor' line here.

Mickey's line is that opposition to the president's policy is inconsistent with cheering a stunning military victory once the decision for war has been made. For an ex-General I don't think it's that surprising at all. As I said, Mickey's point is similar to the Times-Union's point. Since Clark is running as some sort of war protest candidate how could he enthuse over the success of the military's rapid victory in Iraq?

But whatever people think of Clark, I don't think most people in this country would find that a contradiction. I do think that will cause Clark some difficulties in the Democratic primaries. But the slices of the electorate that will decide this election will, I think, share that ambivalence.

The Zogby poll out of Iowa continues to have Dean, Gephardt and Kerry grouped in pretty much a tie (Numbers: Kerry 23%, Dean 22%, Gephardt 19%, Edwards 18%). But the bigger news is out of ARG's New Hampshire poll (Numbers: Dean 28%, Clark 22%, Kerry 18%) Clark remains a half dozen points behind Dean. But look at Kerry -- back at 18%. A week ago he was at 10%.

Now, of course, the precise numbers in these tracking polls are volatile. But trends over time are usually on the mark.

A couple days ago over lunch I was talking to a friend about the Kerry campaign. And I said the big question about Kerry was whether an unexpectedly strong showing in Iowa could whip Kerry back into contention in New Hampshire.

My friend said no, can't happen. And though I'd proposed it as the big question, I instantly agreed.

But clearly I shouldn't have.

The reason it seemed improbable (to me at least) that Kerry could surge back in New Hampshire is, paradoxically, precisely because he used to be so far ahead there.

I can see Clark surging there, or perhaps Edwards, or even Gephardt. But that's because their support was never that high. Someone who's left Candidate X and is looking for someone new will probably look for someone ... well, new, not someone they were supporting before they moved on to candidate X.

Nice theory. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be true. Kerry is quickly moving back into contention in New Hampshire.

Also on the Kerry front, see this article in The New Republic about Kerry's field organizer Michael Whouley -- who may be playing an important role in the shift.