The Crucible

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The long American presidential campaign is a crucible for the candidates — stressful, physically exhausting and demanding. That’s one reason the outcome is not so predictable, despite an excess of polling and running commentaries.

Howard Dean’s candidacy might well have crashed in Iowa, not because of his third-place showing, but because of his reaction to it. His speech to his supporters was about as damaging a performance as I’ve ever seen. He gave the impression of a boy, hurt and disappointed to the point of tears, trying to hide the hurt with bluster, bravado and bombast.

Unless he can transform himself, get over his little-guy complex, ignore his critics and focus on his message, he’s finished. Money and organization by themselves cannot compensate for lack of message and that all-important intangible of "looking presidential." Dean had the most money, and he came in third; he and Dick Gephardt had the best organizations, and they ran third and fourth, respectively.

If Dean crashes, that will be a great shame, because he is an intelligent and principled man who actually has a good message, but elections are won and lost not necessarily on reality but on people’s perception of reality.

Ironically, Dean accomplished his goal. The turnout was twice what it was the last time, and the number of 18- to 24-year-olds doubled. Unfortunately for Dean, he got into a fight with Gephardt, and the people he brought to the dance left him for other candidates. Americans don’t like negative campaigning from the candidate himself, and they really don’t like a whiner.

To beat an incumbent, a challenger must not only spell out what the incumbent is doing wrong, but also what he or she will do differently. In Iowa, Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards did that, while Dean was distracted by critics. Kerry managed to humanize himself and drop some of his pompous stuffiness, and Edwards showed everyone why he was such an effective trial lawyer. He was by far the best orator.

I expect that by the end of February, the Democrats will have their nominee, but I have no idea whom it will be. Karl Rove, the president’s political guru, has never believed the 2004 election is going to be a cakewalk, despite the overconfidence of some Bush supporters.

Many Democrats feel they were cheated in the last election and are out for vengeance. There will likely be an enormous turnout of Democratic voters. The president has going for him what appear to be a rebounding economy and the public’s apparent lack of concern about the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

On the other hand, Iraq remains an improvised explosive, and if the president is unlucky, something catastrophic could occur. If the president is aware — and that’s always a question — he can’t be too happy about the growing restiveness of the Shiites in Iraq. They certainly have the numbers and the fanaticism to rain on his parade. He also faces the problems of the government’s mounting debt and the continuing loss of American jobs to cheap-labor countries.

I don’t think national security will be as strong an issue for the president as some claim. Bill Clinton had no credentials at all in national security, but he beat Bush’s father, who was loaded down with credentials and experience.

The best thing that could happen for the president would be the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden. The worst thing would be another terrorist attack inside the United States.

The one certainty is that 2004 is going to be a most interesting year.

Charley Reese has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner.

© 2004 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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