Thursday, February 12, 2004

As Tennessee Goes ...

Kerry's bandwagon races on against last-ditch efforts by rivals Edwards and Clark.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 12, 2004 at 4:00 AM

With Tennessee's potentially decisive presidential primary only a day away, John Kerry was sitting in one of those little captain's chairs waiting for the TV crew, the latest in a series of local-press types, to start what could only be in the time allotted a pro forma interview in a small holding room.

"Senator, what does the congressman's support mean to your campaign?" Kerry, who has increasingly become the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic presidential nomination, was asked. The "congressman" was, of course, Memphis' 9th District U.S. representative, Harold Ford, Kerry's national campaign co-chair, who had just introduced the Massachusetts senator to a local crowd at the downtown Cadre Club, one that had plainly relished Kerry's somewhat elongated speech. Eaten it with a spoon, in fact -- point by elaborate exegetical point.


Senator John Kerry presses the flesh with the faithful at the Cadre Club on Monday night.

Kerry, whose manner in private is agreeably modest these days, responded: "Well, it means a lot. He's a popular fellow around here. He's a leader, and he's one of the most popular, articulate Democrats in the country. So I'm honored to have his support, and I think it's very helpful to me."

Ooooops! The sound wasn't working right, the senator was informed. Would he mind repeating what he'd just said after some adjustments?

"I don't mind hearing it again," Ford quipped.

"I'm not sure I can say that again," Kerry quipped right back.

He could, of course, and did. And, when he was asked how important Memphis, and Tennessee, were to his campaign strategy, he answered simply, "I'm here!"

He sure was, and to the overflow Monday night crowd of some 1,200 -- mainly Democratic partisans of all shapes and sizes -- that had just heard Kerry, he did just fine. He took President Bush to task for gutting the economy and wrecking the nation's good name in the world; excoriated "the most inept, reckless, arrogant, ideological foreign policy in American history"; deplored the "Benedict Arnold CEOs" who take their HQs to Bermuda, thereby escaping their proper share of taxation; pledged to strengthen education; and promised to deliver on Harry Truman's dream of national health care.

All that and much, much more -- even volunteering a rare commentary on his own operation within the last year for prostate cancer, one that must surely have contributed to his mid-year slump in 2003 but from which, the senator insisted, he had had a full recovery. Kerry certainly demonstrated stamina Monday night, shedding his suit jacket and pushing the hour hand on his personal clock.

That Kerry talked at such length (a decided contrast to the rhetorical chip shots of Senator John Edwards of North Carolina and the verbal mortar rounds, carefully concentrated, of General Wesley Clark) was received as an enormous compliment by the Memphis audience, conscious that they were listening to an all-but-certain Democratic nominee and a very likely president. It was like getting their own State of the Union address.


General Wesley Clark works a crowd of Tennessee voters in Nashville on Sunday night.

Afterward, though, many in the crowd -- even some of those who were most impressed -- wondered out loud if it was really necessary for Kerry to have talked so long. The consensus was that he was maybe 15 minutes over what would have been a good length -- one reason for the overrun being that he had, in the free flow of his talking points, somehow missed bringing his peroration around to his usual concluding challenge for President Bush: "... three words I know he'll understand -- "Bring it on!" Instead, Kerry finished with a promise, once elected, to be able to say, a propos his own foreign and domestic goals, "Mission accomplished!" And the crowd, not to be denied, supplied the "Bring it on!" for him.

It was a night that local Democrats will long remember if Kerry goes on to be elected president. And the new champion lingered longer than planned on Tuesday morning, schmoozing with a crowd at Barksdale's restaurant in Midtown for roughly an hour before hopping his chartered jet for Virginia and his expected victory party Tuesday night.

One of Kerry's rivals, General Clark, had set up his party for Memphis. Clark had declared on Monday afternoon at B.B. King's on Beale that whoever won Memphis would win Tennessee, and whoever won Tennessee would win the nomination. By that standard, Kerry was the optimistic one. His turnout was larger by far than those garnered in the last several days locally by the undeniably hard-working Clark and Edwards.

Clark had generous support, it was obvious, from members of Mayor Willie Herenton's local organization, as well as from city councilman Rickey Peete, Clark's primary host at B.B.'s on Monday. Edwards had the backing of a decent-sized core group, heavy with lawyers and other admirers, like the local Democratic chairman, state Rep. Kathryn Bowers. And Howard Dean, the absent ex-frontrunner, still had loyalists around here and there.

But Kerry now seemed to have everybody else, with the still formidable Ford organization in the van.

And, given what everybody sensed was a new vulnerability on the part of President Bush, who had arguably created more questions than he'd answered in an appearance on last Sunday's Meet the Press, there was a general headiness in Democratic ranks. And a determination, it seemed, to have done with the contest even while only a distinctly modest fraction of Democratic delegates had yet been committed in primary states.

By election eve, the Zogby poll, which had Kerry at 45 percent of the projected Tennessee primary vote, was on everybody's lips. That fact had created a certain bandwagon effect -- bringing some fence-sitters to Kerry's backup chorus Monday night. (Among them was state Senator Roscoe Dixon, previously committed to erstwhile frontrunner Dean. Absent, however, was city councilman Myron Lowery, who had been on local platforms recently with both Edwards and Clark.)

Not that there wasn't a little surviving skepticism. There was, for example, local Democrat Steve Steffens, not one of Monday night's celebrants. Steffens maintains an e-mail network of local Democrats.

Quoth Steffens to his network Monday night anent the general euphoria in party ranks: "I hate to be the crank who tosses the proverbial turd in the punchbowl, but haven't we been here before? It was roughly four weeks ago when my guy Howard Dean had all but been anointed as the Democratic nominee ... [W]hat do we do, good Democrats, if we anoint the good Senator Kerry and he turns out to have his own as-yet-unknown problems? How will he respond to the evil magic yet to be wrought by W's Merlin, Karl Rove? What if he indeed turns out to be the second coming of Ed Muskie, as I have feared?"

As of this week in Memphis, and in Tennessee at large, that seemed to be a minority opinion, though.

(Go to the Flyer Web site,, for in-depth coverage of Tuesday night's results in the presidential primary and local races.)

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