William Saletan has an interesting take in his piece “Clark stops Edwards from stopping Kerry.”
When Wes Clark entered the presidential race five months ago, I said it was a rebuke to John Kerry for failing to catch on as “the candidate with the war record, the candidate who was supposed to keep the party in the center and fend off the standard-bearer of the left.” I still think it was a rebuke. But Kerry reclaimed his role, and now Clark is clearing his path to the end zone by blocking the only candidate who could stop Kerry: John Edwards.
First Clark squashed Edwards’ official campaign kickoff in September, leaking word that very day that he would get into the race. Then, a week ago, Clark beat out Edwards for third in New Hampshire by a fraction of a percentage point. That cost Edwards the ability to claim plausibly that he had continued his momentum from Iowa. Tuesday night, it happened again: Clark eked out a margin over Edwards in Oklahoma so narrow that the state election board will have to review the ballots before declaring an official winner. Edwards argued that he had “exceeded my expectations” and that his finish in Oklahoma, combined with his win in South Carolina, was “a continuation of the surge we’ve seen in other caucuses and primaries.”
About right, I think. With Dean out of the race in all but name, having Edwards and Clark divide up the “moderate” vote almost assures a Kerry nomination.
Bob Novak correctly notes that Clark really isn’t even with Edwards, even though both have won one state:
Clark managed to salvage a vestige of his candidacy by battling it out with Edwards for a photo finish in Oklahoma, with Kerry finishing a close third there. That divided the state’s delegates evenly among the three candidates. Clark had campaigned in Oklahoma almost exclusively, while Edwards and Kerry were there only briefly.
Certainly true. In terms of delegates, Clark is way behind. But he will likely get away with spinning it as a solid victory comparable to Edwards’ in South Carolina.
Or maybe not. Time’s Karen Tumulty says it was a bad night for Clark:
In many ways, the most interesting story of the night was the near- flameout of retired General Wesley Clark, who was, for a brief period last fall, leading the national polls. Clark had bet heavily on this night, spending more than any other candidate in recent weeks on advertising in six of the seven states that held contests. (Missouri, where he did not compete seriously, was the exception.) Tuesday’s territory seemed tailor-made to test his claim that he could appeal to Southerners, moderates and swing voters, but he found little traction anywhere. It seems likely that Clark will soon be out of the race, following 2000 Vice Presidential nominee Joe Lieberman, whose slim hopes of getting life support from a victory in Delaware were not realized.
Howard Dean was another candidate who had once thought this would be his big night. He had ads running in all seven states as early as last fall, back when he was considered to have a good shot at winning both Iowa and New Hampshire, and his strategists had talked openly of February 3 as the night he could all but clinch the nomination. Instead, it marked nine consecutive losses, and his new strategy of a breakout in Wisconsin on February 17 looks dodgier than ever.
Only Edwards seems to have even a slim shot of unseating Kerry. His campaign hopes to follow with two more wins next Tuesday in Virginia and Tennessee. But the more he counts on these southern victories, the more he risks being tagged as a regional candidate Ã¢€” and worse, a regional candidate from a part of the country the Democrats have virtually no chance of winning in the fall. It is not exactly a formula for the kind of momentum he would need going into the big states Ã¢€” among them New York and California Ã¢€” on March 2. ThatÃ¢€™s why his strategists are now considering putting more muscle in Michigan, in hopes of making a decent showing there on Saturday. He met with representatives of 18 unions, including Teamsters President James Hoffa, in South Carolina on Tuesday (Kerry will have his own meeting with the Teamsters on Thursday). And he has put increasing emphasis on trade and jobs over the past few days Ã¢€” a message designed to appeal to the industrial unions whose support is up for grabs now that Congressman Dick Gephardt is out of the race.
Ron Brownstein thinks Kerry is weaker than his 7-2 record reveals and also ignores Clark.
Exit polls in the three most seriously contested states Ã¢€” Arizona, Oklahoma and South Carolina Ã¢€” showed that the Massachusetts senator was benefiting from a growing conviction among Democratic voters that he was more electable and experienced than his rivals.
But the surveys also raised red flags for the leader. The polls showed that Kerry, who has been trying to shed an image as an aloof patrician, fared worse among voters who said their priority was a candidate who cared about people like them.
And Edwards beat Kerry among voters in South Carolina and Oklahoma who said their priority was the economy. Those were the two states where Edwards campaigned the most.
These findings suggest an opening for the North Carolina senator to run a “lunch bucket” campaign of tough-on-trade, economic populism aimed at blue-collar voters and those without college educations.
But that presumes a two-way race between Kerry and Edwards. If Clark hangs on–and all indications are he will–we don’t have that. At least Slate’s Chris Suellentrop doesn’t think so.
For much of the day Tuesday, it appeared that Clark was about to withdraw from the presidential campaign. The early exit polls in Oklahoma showed Clark in third place (though taking into account the presumed margin of error, it was a dead heat). His son, Wes Clark Jr., was speaking about the campaign in the past tense. Only 20 minutes or so before the Clark staffer’s celebratory exclamation, Clark sounded like he was conceding that the Oklahoma primary, rather than marking his first-ever victory in a political campaign, could mark the end of his presidential run. “This could be over, [or] it could be a long way from over,” he said.
But as the returns flowed in and Clark threatened to overtake John Edwards as the first-place candidate on the Oklahoma results displayed on CNN’s crawl, the crowd began sending up a huge cheer every time CNN rotated in the Sooner State numbers. (They watched CNN on a huge TV screen in the smallish room for Clark’s primary night party.) “80 votes! 80 votes! Yeah!” calls out a man watching the election returns with the attentiveness of a football fan during the Super Bowl. With 74 percent of the precincts reporting, Clark goes up by seven votes. “We’re ahead! We’re ahead! We’re ahead!” a supporter screams. It’s the political version of the Giants winning the pennant.
A win’s a win, and some Clark partisans argue that Clark’s Feb. 3 showing trumps Edwards’ decisive South Carolina victory because Clark placed second in three states, while Edwards finished in second place in only two. I don’t buy that. Neither candidate had a particularly strong day. Edwards finished in fourth place in three states, and Clark finished fourth twice, and in Delaware he finished fifth. (For futility, neither compares to Joe Lieberman’s failure to land even 100 votes in North Dakota.) It’s hard to see how either man argues that he deserves to go mano a mano with John Kerry.
At some point, either Clark or Edwards will have to prove that he can win the support of Democratic voters in states in which the Democratic nominee will actually have to campaign in the general election. Clark may be the choice of Oklahoma Democrats, but Oklahoma hasn’t cast its electoral votes for a Democratic presidential candidate since LBJ’s 1964 landslide. South Carolina has been a solid GOP bet for decadesÃ¢€”it was one of the five states to go for Goldwater in ’64Ã¢€”though it did side with Jimmy Carter in 1976. Granted, Edwards demonstrated the ability to garner significant support in Iowa, but Iowa hasn’t gone Republican since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 rout of Walter Mondale.
Finally, Derek Jackson argues that Kerry has “a problem with black voters.”
JOHN KERRY marched into South Carolina showing how he could connect with the “brothers.” He scored the biggest black male endorsement in the state with the backing of US Representative Jim Clyburn. His primary television spot featured one of his African-American and Vietnam buddies from South Carolina, David Alston. Alston, now a minister, said, “When the bullets began to hit the side of the boat — the boom, the pow, pow, pow — we found out John Kerry can lead.”
Tolbert-Miller, who has to stay neutral as elections commissioner, said Kerry was among her favorite candidates. But she and the other women were peeved at Kerry for what they perceive as a top-down strategy of winning black voters with the endorsement of Clyburn and Vietnam vets. That afternoon, Allen Temple was packed with 800 people for a candidates’ open house. Only Sharpton and Edwards made time to show up.
“We all respect Clyburn a lot,” Tolbert-Miller said. “But if Kerry wants to get people truly excited, he has to be seen shaking hands with the people who are dealing with everyday problems. It’s not enough just to say you’ve got black friends. You’ve got to show you’re going to be our friend, too.”
The minister of Allen Temple, Caesar Richburg, agreed, even though he too, was leaning toward Kerry for his perceived electability. “He needs to let go of the formal air,” Richburg said after the debate. “He’s got to communicate compassion. That did not happen tonight.”
Interesting. Kerry is who he is–and he isn’t Al Sharpton, or even Howard Dean. But, unless Edwards or Clark soon emerges as the only viable alternative to Kerry, it’s all academic until the general election.