Thursday, February 5, 2004

Primary Colors

Voters take the palette in hand to paint what could turn out to be a definitive presidential portrait.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 5, 2004 at 4:00 AM

In all of the packings and repackings, the security checks at airports and the sheer pell-mell of rushing around 10 cities in four days on Howard Dean's "Sleepless Summer Tour" last August, only one thing ended up missing in my personal inventory: an hour's worth of taped conversation with Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager and the guru of what many saw as a movement that would change American politics.

Trippi, who had logged time in other presidential campaigns -- those of Gary Hart and Dick Gephardt in 1988, for example -- was credited with devising the whole new panoply of Internet-based techniques -- Web logs, summons to "meetups," and, most importantly, fund solicitations -- that had boosted the once-obscure ex-Vermont governor to the front of the pack of Democratic candidates hoping to bring down President Bush in 2004.

John Kerry

Whatever the final fate of the Dean candidacy, which suffered potentially lethal setbacks in Iowa and New Hampshire, it was the Greatest Show on Earth for most of last year into January of this year. And last summer's cross-country Sleepless Tour, which drew large and sometimes idolatrous crowds, may prove in retrospect to have been the very apex of the candidate's fortunes.

Dean made himself freely available to the accompanying media during that barnstorming tour, but his accessibility was nothing compared to that provided by the talkative Trippi, who engaged in a constant gabfest with reporters en route to events, at the sites themselves, and at hotels.

You know the old joke: First prize is an evening with So-and-So, second prize is two evenings, and so forth? Well, So-and-So, thy name is Trippi.

The missing tape was from a conversation at a late-night restaurant stop in either Seattle or San Antonio. (The cities, which also included such stops as Chicago, New York, and Boise, Idaho, went by like blurs.) Trippi was voluble and specific on a number of subjects relating to the campaign, including the likely impact of the entry into the race, then pending, of General Wesley Clark and the chances of wooing Clark as a potential running mate.

On only one subject was Trippi either evasive or vague: What would happen if Dean should peak too soon? The answer he gave was at length, but what it boiled down to was: We'll worry about that if and when it happens -- the implication clearly being that it wouldn't.

John Edwards

Well, it did. Considered by most observers to be a shoo-in after his endorsement by former Vice President Al Gore in December, Dean underwent some serial misfortunes: First, the capture of Saddam Hussein both upstaged the Gore endorsement and -- temporarily, at least -- took Iraq off the map. Then Dean -- who, as the acknowledged frontrunner, was undergoing nonstop. ritual batterings from his then desperate rivals -- began visibly to slow down. His basic speech, which once upon a time had been a real rouser, dried up as Dean kept reciting it, all but unchanged, into the new year. And then came disclosures, from old, pre-candidate days, that he had once disparaged the role of the Iowa caucuses in the presidential-selection process.

We all know the subsequent story: the third-place finish in Iowa, the "I Have a Scream" concession speech, the unimpressive second place in the New Hampshire primary. Meanwhile, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry was somehow morphing from a Herman Munster-like stiff into the Man Who.

Arguably even more astonishing was the mystery of Dean's vanishing war chest. Before Iowa, he had raised some $41 million, far and above what his Democratic rivals had done, including Kerry, who had to write a $6 million personal check on his heiress wife Theresa's account in order to stay in the race.

On the night of the New Hampshire primary, Dean told Washington Week's Gwen Ifill that he was determined to keep fighting, in "10 states in 10 days ... if you really think about it, it's 13 states ... in about 13 days." Ifill asked: "Can you afford ... to compete in all states?" Dean assured her: "Yeah, we will compete in every state."

Within 24 hours, that answer was inoperative. It was announced that Dean's holdings were -- like his poll ratings in too many states -- in the single digits. All the way down to a figure between $5 million and $7 million, to be exact. He wouldn't be campaigning in the next seven states -- the ones voting on February 2nd. And then the real shocker: Trippi would be going, to be replaced as campaign manager by former Gore chief of staff Roy Neel, a longtime Washington pro.

In the ensuing flood of crocodile tears from a media which found Trippi as beloved as Dean was suddenly suspect, some important facts were overlooked: One was that Trippi had not been fired; Dean had wanted him to stay on as a strategist, in fact, but Trippi had declared that "two captains" could not share power. More important was the likely cause of the change: overspending by erstwhile manager Trippi.

Wesley Clark

Persistent rumors began to materialize -- as on the Web site -- alleging that Trippi was getting as much as a 15 percent commission on all ads placed by the campaign, and there were beaucoup of them. Oakland, California, Mayor Jerry Brown, a two-time former presidential candidate himself and a onetime employer of Trippi's, opined in a conversation with Flyer publisher Kenneth Neill last weekend that Trippi was best suited "for fringe candidates like myself," suggesting that the mainstream was not Joe's stream.

If and when Dean has to depart the trail, it will sadden his left-behind legions of supporters -- like Memphis' Stacy Luttrell, a 27-year-old mother who did grunt work in the zero-degree climes of Iowa and New Hampshire for the man she called "the Bobby Kennedy of my generation."

And it won't exactly overjoy those observers of the political game who allowed themselves to be bemused by the prospect of a nominee beholden for a change not to the big lobbies and fat-cat givers -- as all other serious candidates, regardless of party, have been -- but to all those nickel-and-dimers whose average contribution to the campaign amounted to all of $77. And now that piggyback treasury is all busted up and gone. Nice trip, Trippi.

A link between all of this and our local election scene was vocalized Saturday night by state Senator Roscoe Dixon, a candidate this year for General Sessions Court clerk and a prime speaker at an African-Americans-for-Dean function at The Peabody. Addressing a crowd that was sparser by perhaps three-fourths what it would have been if Dean had, as once widely predicted, won in both Iowa and New Hampshire, Dixon declared: "I know I'm running for office, and I'm not supposed to be endorsing candidates, but this man has inspired me. Howard Dean has inspired me to be here, and he's inspired you to be here. That's why we are endorsing Howard Dean, even though he may be [moving now] in the valley of the shadow of death. ... Let's not give up, because Howard Dean's dream is our dream."

The Man Who

Howard Dean

Portions of Dean's dream will, of course, live on in other candidates -- most particularly in the campaign of the man most likely to succeed him as a nominee-presumptive, Senator John Kerry, whose resurrection from the near-dead in the few weeks since New Year's is something of a mystery, even to such longtime supporters as Memphis congressman Harold Ford Jr., a national co-chair of the senator's campaign, who was asked about the reasons for Kerry's sudden turnaround in a conference call with Tennessee reporters on Monday.

"These races last for so doggone long," began Ford uncertainly. He then theorized, probably correctly, that the capture of Saddam Hussein in mid-December had probably done much to turn voter attention to former naval officer Kerry, a bona fide Vietnam war hero (and an influential war protester afterward) and to puncture war opponent Dean's longstanding balloon.

That educated guess was followed by a more dubious one. Perhaps understandably, Ford, who, like Kerry, had voted in 2002 to authorize war powers for President Bush in Iraq, wanted to expiate that one. Kerry had gained support, the congressman supposed, by demonstrating that "he had thought long and hard about authorizing the use of force and was able to articulate his reasons."

That was disingenuous by half. In point of fact, Kerry's vote for the war resolution was the one thing the candidate was shying away from in his stump speeches -- dealing with it, if he had to, only in Q-and-A sessions. And the thinking-long-and-hard aspect of his answers could perhaps be attributed more to a need for squaring an obstinate circle than to any quality of thoughtfulness per se.

Still, it was evident in both Iowa and New Hampshire that Kerry's speeches were both crisper and reflected a new quasi-populist note. He spoke of "fundamental unfairness" in the tax code, of a "creed of greed" promoted by the Bush administration, of "Benedict Arnold CEOs who take their companies overseas and stick you with the tax bill," of overfed, over-profiteering drug companies, and of his desire to "complete the mission begun by Harry Truman in 1948" by instituting a national health-care system.

The similarity of most of this to rhetoric that had been uttered by the now-fading Dean for much of the previous six months could be regarded as coincidental. There was consensus among Democrats on these themes, after all -- even if the Truman reference arched close indeed to the "Give 'Em Hell" stump speech favored by Dean during his now-crested rise to national celebrity.

Another argument for borrowing was harder to refute. Like any speaker, Dean had had his inimitable tics -- like his serial invocation of countries which, unlike the United States, provide universal health care. The list, which included, inter alia, "the Dutch, the French, the British, the Belgians," etc., would inevitably conclude with the capper: "Even Costa Rica has a national health-care system." (Dean's audiences had taken to rhythmic foot stomping in anticipation of his mention of the tiny Central American nation.")

Kerry had, no doubt wisely, left the Costa Rica reference to its originator, but he had suddenly found room in his speeches for another idiosyncratic Dean nugget, the lament that the United States, under Bush, had not availed itself of its treaty rights to purchase leftover (and potentially lethal) uranium stocks from Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

None of this invalidated the new appeal of Kerry, of course -- since ultimate nominees have a license, even an obligation, to represent the spectrum of their parties. And, as MarDee Xifaras, an ebullient New Hampshire supporter of Kerry's, had put it: "Date a Dean, marry a Kerry." The looming cragginess that had been vaguely off-putting for much of last year had suddenly come to seem appropriately rugged, even Rushmorean, especially now that the candidate had retooled his speaking and campaigning styles, making the former leaner and less sonorous and achieving a remarkable folksiness in the latter.

Flyer online columnist Cheri DelBrocco, who had an opportunity to observe Kerry in New Hampshire, was struck with the attention -- and warmth -- the candidate lavished on one voter, a woman who had tugged on the senator at the rope line following a speech, telling him of a family casualty in Iraq.

Insiders in the Kerry campaign attribute the sea change in their man almost entirely to the influence of Mary Beth Cahill, an operative schooled in the service of Kerry's Massachusetts Senate colleague, Ted Kennedy. Cahill had replaced Kerry's own former chief aide, Jim Jordan, in November, and in a conclave of Kerry campaign staffers in December had put it to them bluntly, "We can't make a single mistake in January."

They -- and Kerry -- didn't. And the gods gave them luck. "The perfect storm," Memphian David Cocke would call it, as he and other local supporters of Kerry prepared for a Tuesday night election-watch party at the home of Memphian Kerry Fullmer, the senator's first cousin, once removed. Up for grabs this week were delegates in South Carolina, Missouri, Delaware, New Mexico, Arizona, North Dakota, and Oklahoma. Only in Oklahoma, where retired NATO commander Wesley Clark, might win, and South Carolina, home of Senator John Edwards, another aspirant, was Kerry's lead in doubt.

Southern Echoes

Though both Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich and Connecticut senator Joseph Lieberman were technically still in the race, only Clark and Edwards had a chance to block Kerry's march in the short run. And those hopes were almost as long-odds as those of Dean, who was trying desperately to retool for a comeback in later states.

As candidates, both Clark and Edwards had much to commend them. The general -- who had earlier picked up the support of numerous influential Tennesseans (including aides to Governor Phil Bredesen) as a potential alternative to the then ascendant Dean -- now dangled perilously on the cusp of irrelevance.

Adding to Clark's predicament was the fact that his unflattering performance in a couple of recent debates -- notably one in New Hampshire -- had been seen everywhere, while his bravado speeches -- extraordinarily energized and encapsulating an impressive variety of Democratic Party shibboleths -- had been observed only by those who attended the general's barn-burning speeches in the primary states.

Clark's decision to pass up Iowa may in the long run have been the single greatest mistake of the primary season. If circumstances -- say, even a modest stalling of the Kerry bandwagon -- were to somehow allow him an attentive national audience, voters might yet get to contemplate a candidate with a stretch that was arguably even greater than Kerry's -- from wartime valor like the senator's on one end of the stick to the most libertarian of appeals for tolerance of diversity on the other.

Nor was Edwards, who spoke eloquently of "two Americas ... one for the rich, one for everybody else," anybody's slouch. The boyish senator was a successful trial lawyer who had long since developed a remarkable ability to bat his eyes at the women in his crowds while making man talk to the menfolk. And when he said, "The South isn't George W. Bush's backyard, it's my backyard," his logic was obvious, even compelling.

Nor, even if defeated, was Edwards likely to be forgotten. His name was increasingly on the lips of Kerry supporters as the likely vice-presidential pick of the Massachusetts senator.

Just in case the fat lady wasn't quite ready to tune up, both Edwards and Clark were due to hit Memphis this week and were slated to tour the rest of Tennessee. In years past, the state has ended up having to deal with table scraps in the primary season -- after the results in early states had already determined the outcome.

For that reason, the state legislature last year voted to move Tennessee's own presidential primary up to February 10th -- next Tuesday -- and there's at least a chance that, with big states like Ohio, New York, and California still to hold primaries within the next several weeks, the Volunteer State might have a say in determining the final outcome.

Even if so, Bush still possesses the bully pulpit and a fund-raising capacity that can't be matched even by Kerry and the now reeling Dean -- each of whom had, like the president, forsaken the federal matching-fund framework with its built-in limits on candidates' fundraising.

This week's polls showing the president's job approval rating falling below 50 percent is bound to gratify Democrats and trouble Republicans, including a president who must surely be nagged by memories of the fate which befell his father, President George H.W. Bush, a leader who saw his standing soar after a declaration of "mission accomplished" in an Iraqi war, then erode in the national election that followed.

We shall see what we shall see. Let be be finale of seem.

Local Options

Roscoe Dixon

This year's local countywide primary for the offices of General Sessions Court clerk and assessor was moved to the unusually early date of February 10th in order to dovetail with state legislators' wishes to hold a presidential primary that might affect the national results.

That has created organizational and fund-raising difficulties for the candidates -- challengers, especially.

Here's the lineup:

Assessor: Democratic incumbent Rita Clark will have her hands full holding off a primary challenge from Shelby County commissioner Michael Hooks, a former assessor. Hooks ran as an independent against Clark four years ago, without much effect, but he's in far better shape this year.

Clark, however, has done some serious campaigning -- especially among African-American voters who might otherwise be drawn to the Hooks fold. One of her co-chairs is Janis Fullilove, who almost unseated City Court clerk Thomas Long last year.

Republicans vying for the post include another assessor, Harold Sterling, who upset Hooks 12 years ago and was upset in his turn by Clark four years later. Sterling is capitalizing on his established image and has been campaigning energetically. Other GOP contenders are real estate appraiser Grady Frisby, who has attracted good support from those Republicans seeking a new face; real estate broker and former Lakeland mayor Jim Bomprezzi; tax consultant Bob Kahn; and John C. Bogan, a deputy county assessor.

General Sessions Court clerk: Republican incumbent Chris Turner has at least nominal opposition from his primary opponent, process server Charles Fineberg. But Turner's chief long-term opposition is likely to come from state Senator Roscoe Dixon, a Democratic challenger who has made it clear this year -- unlike the case with his 2000 bid for the post -- that he will resign his Senate seat if elected.

Dixon must first make it by fellow Democrat Rebecca Clark, a former chief administrator of the clerk's office. Clark has some party and labor support and could benefit from the prevalence of her surname on the primary-election list (Besides Rita Clark, General Wesley Clark is on the ballot as a presidential candidate.)

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