Nice-guy primary leaves Kerry open for attack
By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
Published March 6, 2004
WASHINGTON - Presidential primaries are usually spirited brawls with plenty of attack ads, but not this year. Other than an Iowa clash between Rep. Richard Gephardt and Howard Dean, the Democratic candidates were mostly positive and upbeat.
Sen. John Edwards set the tone with his pledge to stay positive.
"Too often, when politicians don't have faith in their ideas to confront the tough issues, they attack," he said.
But were the candidates too nice?
Sen. John Kerry has emerged as the likely nominee, but some analysts say the congenial process did not give him enough scrutiny. That could make him vulnerable to attacks by President Bush.
"Primaries are about vetting candidates," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the Cook Political Report. "In a lot of ways, John Kerry hasn't been vetted."
Duffy compares Kerry to a baseball player who skipped spring training.
"Kerry and his campaign may not be at the top of their game," she said.
Craig Crawford, an analyst for for MSNBC and Congressional Quarterly, said the other candidates could have zeroed in on Kerry's vulnerabilities - that he flip-flops, is too liberal or is a Washington insider. But they backed off because they were afraid of alienating Democratic voters.
"It's hugely dangerous for Kerry," said Crawford. He predicted that Kerry will now be defined by President Bush, "an opponent with $180-million to define him."
Shortly before Dean dropped out of the race last month, Dean spokesman Jay Carson lamented that Kerry had not been examined as closely as Dean.
"You know who is going to define John Kerry? Karl Rove is going to define John Kerry," Carson said, referring to Bush's chief political strategist.
But the Kerry campaign and its supporters say the Massachusetts senator has gotten a close examination.
"He has been scrutinized by the media and by his opponents," said Kerry campaign spokesman Mark Kornblau. "He has shown that he is a fighter, and that's a major reason why voters have decided that he is the best candidate to take on George Bush in the fall."
Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said in an e-mail interview that Kerry was attacked last fall because of his support of the Iraq war and "came back from near political death" to win the early primaries. "Kerry's recovery from early stumbles placed his campaign in the driver's seat," she said.
This year's primary schedule was "front-loaded" with more states in the first few weeks than in the past. That was supposed to reduce the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire and give more states a voice.
"We have our nominee a little bit earlier than the last cycle, but we've had many more states involved in the selection process," said Tony Welch, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. "Clearly there was more energy about the primary process this time around."
But instead of reducing the clout of Iowa and New Hampshire, the party seems to have boosted their importance. Kerry's surprising win in Iowa gave him so much momentum that he could not be stopped. He then won New Hampshire and his success snowballed.
"This whole campaign was begun, fought and ended in 10 days in Iowa," Crawford said.
Duffy said the other candidates misinterpreted the lessons of Iowa. They saw that Dean and Gephardt's campaigns plummeted because of negative attacks, so the other campaigns decided to stay positive in other states.
That belief was fueled by Edwards, who had a standard line in his speeches that he would not attack the other candidates.
But Duffy said the campaigns failed to realize Iowa was unique because it emphasized personal contact, and that aggressive campaigning could be effective in states where TV advertising is more important.
Now, Bush has begun to sharply define Kerry the way his Democratic opponents never did.
At a speech Wednesday night, Bush said Kerry has "been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue."
- Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Bill Adair can be reached at email@example.com or 202 463-0575.
[Last modified March 6, 2004, 01:35:41]
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