The question of the hour is, Can Howard Dean be stopped? Well, of course he can be stopped. His “lead” is enirely on paper. Not a single delegate has been selected. In my opinion, the air could go out of Dean’s balloon with shocking suddenness. The only primary that he has more or less locked up is quirky, non-predictive New Hampshire. Beyond that, everything is wide open.
The conventional wisdom is that the story of the Democratic contest so far is Howard Dean’s success. In a sense, of course, that is true. But as I’ve said before, the real story is not so much Dean’s success as the failure of the other candidates. Dean has never been able to get much over 25% in either the national polls or, with one or two exceptions, individual state polls. What has caused Dean to monopolize the buzz is the fact that no other candidate has been able to get much over 10%.
Moreover, the most recent data from Rasmussen Reports shows Dean’s lead declining nationally. In the December survey, Dean was at 26%; in the January polling, he has fallen to 22%. Amazingly enough, the competitor who apparently picked up the 4% was John Kerry. Everyone else was stable. The latest American Research Group poll shows a similar drop-off in New Hampshire. So far, despite all of the publicity he has garnered and his presumed front-runner status, Dean has shown no sign of being able to put together anything like a majority of Democratic voters.
In my opinion, the picture will look very different when Dean’s competitors start dropping from the race, which will happen very soon. In a one-on-one matchup against a more seasoned, more moderate candidate, I think Dean loses. The question comes down, I believe, to whether opposition to Dean will coalesce around a single alternative in time.
There are three plausible alternatives to Dean (assuming Hillary stays out). Kerry, notwithstanding his apparent recent gains, is, in my opinion, a hopeless candidate. Gephardt isn’t as inept, but is just as dull. The most dangerous Democrat, I think, is Wesley Clark. Democratic voters are clearly looking for someone new, and someone who can win. Gephardt fails on both counts. Clark, on the other hand, could run a dangerously strong race against President Bush. As a military man from Arkansas, he would not write off the South. He looks great and talks pretty plausibly. I suspect that a considerable number of voters who would normally be automatic Bush supporters may be seduced by Clark’s military background. Do I think Clark would beat Bush? No. But I think he would be by far the most dangerous nominee.
When Clark first announced, his amateurish mistakes caused me to discount him. Even more, I thought the idea that the Democrats would nominate a man who voted for Ronald Reagan, and joined the party only days before announcing his candidacy, was ridiculous. Now, I’m not so sure. These are strange times. Dean is clearly vulnerable; my hope is that if he is beaten, it is by Gephardt rather than Clark.
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