“Look Back, Dean, They're Gaining On You” Commentary by David Yepsen, Des Moines Register, 1/15/04
When the last stories of the 2004 Iowa Democratic caucuses are written, the decisions by Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt to be absent from the state for part of this final week of the campaign may loom large. The latest tracking poll of the race shows John Kerry has caught up with them - with John Edwards in hot pursuit.
So, as Dean slips, Kerry benefits. As Gephardt slips, Edwards profits.
Also this week, Dean started ads attacking his three leading opponents for voting for the Iraq war. That tells you Dean's own internal tracking poll shows this race has tightened, so he's going back to the issue that made him the early front-runner - the Iraq war. Trouble is, polls also tell us that Iraq isn't the most important issue on the minds of most caucus-goers. Issues such as jobs, trade, health care and education are more important, and the other candidates have plenty of credibility on those questions. Finally, despite all the talk about how liberal caucus-goers are, it's also true that the winners generally come from the center of that cycle's political spectrum. For example, in 1976, Jimmy Carter defeated people on his left. In 1984, Walter Mondale beat candidates more liberal than he.
The only upside to Dean's and Gephardt's journeys outside Iowa is that it gave their organizations in the state time to harvest votes rather than advancing events and moving a candidate around. Since Gephardt's organization is the best while Dean's is the largest, each man probably figured he could play hookey from Iowa for a day or two.
But given how tight this is, Dean and Gephardt may someday wish they'd have spent more time in places like Burlington, Ia., instead of Burlington, Vt., this week. That will become clear to them on caucus night, when only a few thousand votes are likely to separate the first-, second- and third-place finishers.
It's one of those things a loser can kick himself over for the rest of his life.