February 6, 2004

Wisconsin: An important crossroads for Democrats seeking the nomination

As the remaining presidential hopefuls campaign across the country, both strategists and journalists alike are looking for the next state that will have the most impact in the Democratic nominating process. For this writer that state is Wisconsin.

The past three primary dates (in Iowa, New Hampshire, and the seven states this week) have accomplished three things. The first was to rip front-runner status from Howard Dean and give it to John Kerry. The second was to reduce the once crowded Democratic field by convincing Gephardt and Lieberman to withdraw. The final effect has been the creation of John Edwards's past resurgence and present insurgency. All of these factors will not be altered considerably until February 17, the day of the Wisconsin primary. In the coming days, we will see the remaining four campaigns following dramatically different geographic routes: Kerry and Dean will fight in the north in Michigan and Washington this Saturday and Maine on Tuesday, while Edwards and Clark, the two southern candidates, will fight for Tennessee and Virginia on February 10.

Thus, all four will campaign in the regions where they have the most name recognition and popularity. Although this is shrewd politics, this strategy will prolong the contest until all four candidates meet in Wisconsin, a state where none of them have regional influence and where all of them have advantages.

Wisconsin has something for each candidate, that is, if they can capitalize on it.

For Howard Dean, Wisconsin has a strong anti-war tradition, the same tradition that vaulted Governor Dean to the head of the pack before the Iowa primary, and if he can return to his Iraq war stump speech, he might find the most receptive audience he has had in nearly a month.

Wes Clark's faltering campaign has been sustained mostly by independents. Unlike some of the previous primaries, Wisconsin holds an open primary allowing anyone to vote, regardless of party affiliation. If Clark is able to get the independent vote, he could beat at least one of the other candidates while Dean, Edwards, and Kerry fight for the party loyalists on the left.

John Kerry: With his momentum and the press that follows it, Kerry might have enough support come Wisconsin that the advantages for the other candidates that I'm enumerating will be negligible. But even Kerry has two surprising advantages, both stolen from other candidates. Dean was seen as the students' candidate and yet, in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Missouri, Kerry has won a majority of the youth vote. If he can reprise that performance in Wisconsin (including the gargantuan student community of 42,000 in Madison), Kerry would claim a substantial lead.

Kerry has also managed to steal the veteran vote from Clark. Of the state's citizens, 13 percent have fought in a war, and if they come out for Kerry as they have in the past weeks, he could have an even broader coalition.

The final and perhaps the most interesting analysis is of John Edwards. Edwards has created a rural strategy that seems antithetical to the increasingly urban-based Democratic Party. Yet by campaigning not just in cities but also in small towns, and using his populist themes to underscore specific agricultural policies, Edwards has courted the rural vote with much success in the past weeks and has rural America to thank for his insurgency. With a rural population comprising nearly a third of the state, Wisconsin could provide the occasion for Edwards to prove that he is not the regional candidate that his critics purport him to be.

Having watched the primary season unfold, I am hesitant to make any predictions, but I can make one guess: if Howard Dean does not win Wisconsin, his campaign for the presidency is over. This seems like a safe bet. In an e-mail to his supporters, Dean wrote, "The entire race has come down to this. We must win WisconsinÂ… Anything less will put us out of the race." Dean has awoken to the political reality that he has spent $40 million and not won a single state. He understands that he must win in the next couple of weeks to retain any viability as a candidate, and his campaign staff has the political wisdom necessary to understand that with its anti-war tradition Wisconsin is his best chance.

Thus, simply as Howard Dean's last chance, Wisconsin will be decisive, but it will be even more important in the emerging showdown between Kerry and Edwards. Wisconsin could be Edwards's final opportunity to stop John Kerry's momentum. For the next weeks, these two candidates will be collecting delegates where it is comfortable, but in Wisconsin, they will be forced to fight each other for the nomination.