Total Eclipse In Iowa

John Kerry's victory in the Iowa caucuses Monday night dealt a severe blow to frontrunner Howard Dean's presidential hopes and left the field wide open just a week before the candidates face off next in New Hampshire.

"It's the equivalent of a total eclipse of the sun," said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. "It absolutely throws the whole process into turmoil."

Kerry won 38 percent of the vote, followed John Edwards, who took 32 percent. Lagging behind were Howard Dean with 18 percent, Richard Gephardt with 11 percent and Dennis Kucinich with just 1 percent. One thousand nine hundred and ninety-three precincts voted, and 45 delegates to the state convention were at stake in what was considered one of the most competitive Iowa caucuses in years.

Gephardt's fourth place finish ended his presidential campaign. The former House minority leader had been expected to come in first or second; he won the Iowa caucuses in 1988 and enjoyed strong union backing this year. But he was apparently unable to expand beyond that base of support. Even if he had won Monday, political observers questioned whether he would have able to build upon that success in other states.

As Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said before the voting started, "The winnowing begins tonight."

Dean's third-place showing was a surprise considering his perceived strong organization and grassroots support. But attacks leveled at him in recent weeks -- including his record on race relations, his support for Medicare and his sealed records as Vermont√ęs governor -- obviously resonated with voters.

"When you're way ahead, people decide you're the target," Dean told CNN's Larry King Monday night.

Slipping in polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire, Dean had lashed out recently at his opponents and at the press, appearing angry just as many voters tuned in to see the candidates and make up their minds. Gephardt's poor showing, after running nasty ads against Dean, may also send a signal that voters will not stomach much negative campaigning this year. That may have helped Edwards, who ran a largely positive campaign, and could hurt Joe Lieberman, who stayed out of the Iowa caucuses to focus on New Hampshire and other states, and has been highly critical of Dean.

Voters surveyed in media reports before the caucuses also expressed concerns about Dean's ability to defeat President Bush, one of the most important factors for many Democrats in deciding which candidate to support. This was true even though Dean was endorsed by a cadre of party leaders, including former Vice President Al Gore, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin.

As Baker noted, while the core of Dean's support was solid, "There is an outer rim that likes him because of his position on the war but has doubts about his electability." That group was likely peeled off by Kerry and Edwards.

While still important, the war on Iraq is not at the top of many voters' agendas, as was demonstrated by both Dean and Kucinich's poor numbers. Instead, the economy emerged as voters' primary concern because of slow growth and high unemployment numbers. Kerry has said he wants to roll back President Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and enact tax relief for middle-class families. Edwards said Monday night that America has a "moral responsibility" to the poor.

Both Kerry and Edwards echoed Gore's 2000 "people versus the powerful" message in their victory addresses. Kerry said of special interests: "We're coming, you're going, and don't let the door hit you on the way out." Edwards talked of the importance of uniting the "two Americas."

Additionally, Dean's lackluster performance raises questions about whether he can win by running a campaign critical of the party's establishment, which, interestingly, considered Kerry the frontrunner a year ago. Dean has attacked his opponents, five of whom serve in Congress, as being Washington Democrats who have acquiesced to Bush on Iraq, education and other issues. While only three lawmakers in history have gone directly from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other, voters may be sending a message that they want a candidate with Beltway experience in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Kerry stressed his military service in Iowa, bringing in former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, a triple amputee, to campaign for him.

High expectations did not help Dean, either. His lead in fundraising and in earlier polls caused the media to turn its spotlight on him (Time and Newsweek both ran critical cover stories on him in recent weeks). Kerry and Edwards, meanwhile, were left largely alone.

But Kerry benefited from a surge of momentum going into the caucuses, and was helped by the endorsement of Iowa's first lady, Christie Vilsack, even though her husband, Gov. Tom Vilsack, remained neutral. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), one of the party's most popular figures, also campaigned aggressively for Kerry during the last two weekends and was by his side Monday evening.

Edwards, who won the backing of the Des Moines Register, may have been helped by an agreement he reached with Kucinich that each would tell his delegates to support the other if one did not have enough votes to be considered viable at a caucus site.

Now, as Time magazine's Joe Klein told CNN, begins the "longest week in American politics." Past experience shows that the candidate who wins in Iowa often loses in New Hampshire. In 2000, George W. Bush won handily in Iowa, only to fall to John McCain. Four years earlier, Bob Dole won the Iowa caucuses, but Pat Buchanan emerged victorious in New Hampshire.

Hailing from Massachusetts, Kerry's proximity to New Hampshire will likely help him in the Jan. 27 primary. It could also aid Dean, who has spent much time there. Dean said that he has a "huge base" that he believes will carry to him to victory. Adding that he was heading to New Hampshire in the middle of the night, he said, "We believe Democrats want to be Democrats again."

But the race becomes more complicated as Lieberman and Wesley Clark, who has been surging in the polls, enter the picture. And Kerry -- who had to mortgage his home after opting out of public financing in the primaries -- must raise outside money quickly to keep his campaign financially afloat.

A poll of likely Democratic voters taken Jan. 16-18 by the American Research Group showed Dean with 28 percent of the vote, followed by Clark with 20 percent, Kerry with 19 percent and Edwards with 8 percent. It's difficult to tell how the Iowa results will affect these numbers considering New Hampshire's past record.

As Lieberman said on CNN, "New Hampshire is a whole new ballgame."

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.

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