Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Primary Colors
Some random observations about the night that was:

Howard Dean's speech tonight was vintage Dean, precise, passionate, never stepping on applause lines--the man can really fire up a crowd, and it's one of the things we Deaniacs love about him. But it was also a cagey speech--"We are not done," he said, but it could be interpreted to mean we are not necessarily going on to Super Tuesday, either. Fox analyst Susan Estrich said she thought the speech contained hints of a speech Dean might give on Thursday--perhaps dropping out or suspending his campaign. (I confess--I haven't programmed Fox News out of my remote yet, so I do stop by now and then, although my wife doesn't like it when I do. She says it's bad for my blood pressure, and she's right.)

Poor John Edwards--he exceeds everybody's expectations and turns the Democratic fight into a two-horse race, then he comes out in front of a wild crowd in Milwaukee and gets off a great line, saying that the voters of Wisconsin had sent a message that "objects in your mirror are closer than they appear"--and then Kerry comes out to speak to his supporters in Madison (a half-mile from where I'm sitting, actually), and every channel cuts away to him. It had to be timed that way by the Kerry camp, knowing that Edwards is a compelling speaker.

And their man is not. And it's not just his speaking style, which suffers in comparison to Edwards' ebullience and Dean's passion--he tends to plod, although he occasionally locks into a cadence that puts me in mind of FDR. Kerry's speech tonight was so generic that it could have been given on any primary night in any election season for the past 30 years, the usual Democratic litany about better schools and worker protection and environmental responsibility. Not until he started talking about foreign policy and Iraq did Kerry seem much connected to 2004 at all. You do not need much clearer evidence that unlike other candidates in the race, Kerry doesn't grasp that this election has different stakes than any other--or if he does, that he prefers not to frame it that way. A 20-year veteran senator can't credibly sell himself as an insurgent.

And then, unlike Dean, Kerry stepped on his best line--that if the Republicans want to contest the election on the basis of national security, "Bring it on." He prompted the audience to say it with him, but then moved on to his next point before giving them a chance to cheer it. He's been using the line in speeches for a while, so there's no excuse for messing it up. He did better introducing his family, friends, and supporters--although I can't help thinking that Mrs. Kerry always looks like she'd rather be anywhere else. Mr. Kerry copped a line from JFK, about being the man who escorts Teresa around the country--and it's apparently Tar-ay-suh, not Tur-ee-suh.

As usual, our local TV stations did not cover themselves in glory. Funny--some of these stations have done live newscasts for 50 years, but come election night, when they're forced to ad lib and think on the fly, it starts looking like public access. I tuned in the Fox affiliate for their 9:00 newscast, which carried Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager's effusive introduction of Dean at length, but then cut away from the speech before Dean began. While flailing around trying to figure out what to do next, they ran a brief story on Edwards, inexplicably reporting that he intended to stay in the race despite his faltering campaign. Maybe the copy was written eight days ago, when Edwards was 36 points behind Kerry in one poll, but tonight, it was so stupidly wrong that somebody ought to get fired for putting it on the air. At this point, I began flipping around to the other local channels, most of whom were carrying Dean's speech--although by the time Kerry came out, they'd returned to entertainment programming.

Apart from the Democratic primary, we had only the casino vote I wrote about yesterday on our ballot in Dane County--and the result was just as surprising as Edwards' near miss. Contrary to my expectations, the casino went down hard--failing 65 percent to 35 with about 90 percent of the vote in. The Ho Chunk tribe outspent the no-casino group $1 million to $50,000, so it's an amazing result. It almost confirms one's faith in the ability of the voters to think through a complex issue and arrive at a counter-intuitive result.

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