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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 January, 2004, 20:14 GMT
Campaign column: Lessons of Iowa

By Tom Carver
BBC correspondent in Washington

Not long ago, Howard Dean stood up and declared that he had had enough criticism from his Democratic Party colleagues.

John Kerry after Iowa win
John Kerry changed his style to 'connect' with voters
"We're not going to put up with it any more," he thundered. It was a moment of supreme arrogance. And hubris quickly followed.

In Iowa, Howard Dean did not so much fall off a cliff: the sea rose up to drown him.

The opinion polls which showed him in the lead up to the end were not wrong - they just excluded the undecideds.

When the time came for them to make a choice, they plumped for John Kerry and John Edwards.

The best thing that happened to John Kerry was Howard Dean
Several times on caucus night, these thoughtful, agnostic rank-and-file Democrats told me they felt Kerry and Edwards were more likely to beat George Bush.

During the post-caucus parties, someone was selling a lapel button saying: "Dated Dean. Married Kerry". And that sums it up.

In the end, Establishment and electability triumphed over anger and the rebel.

Nifty slogan

The best thing that happened to John Kerry was Howard Dean.

A year ago on the Olympian heights of the US Senate, Senator Kerry - the aristocratic bloodhound - convinced himself he was the shoo-in for the Democratic nomination.

John Kerry projects respect, but John Edwards projects movie star
Then, out of nowhere, the fox terrier from Vermont came barrelling into the circus ring and scooped up all the attention causing the Senator to have a political version of a nervous breakdown.

He fired his campaign manager, hired armies of consultants, muddled his message and, in the process, confused himself and everyone else.

Finally in November a leaner, humbler Kerry Mark 2 emerged.

Discarding his Brooks Brothers blazer, he stood for hours in small circles of Democratic supporters and listened, possibly for the first time in his life, without preaching.

When I travelled with him around Iowa last week, I was struck by his air of sincerity and the clarity of his ideas.

He had replaced his leaden "Senatese" speeches with a nifty slogan (the "Real Deal campaign") and it worked. As Bill Clinton might have said, he connected.

Kennedy factor

Up to now, Edwards had also had a difficult year.

For all of 2003, he was adrift in the Sargasso Sea of single-digit popularity. At one rally last summer in Iowa that I watched, he spoke to a crowd of precisely 12 indifferent-looking shoppers.

John Edwards
Girls described John Edwards as "our generation's JFK"
Unlike Kerry, Edwards did not change his style - people just started paying him attention.

And last week, it was obvious why his colleagues in the Senate had dubbed him The Natural.

John Kerry projects respect but John Edwards projects movie star.

Excitable girls stood on tables at the back desperate for his signature, gushing about him being "our generation's JFK".

So what lessons can we draw from the Iowa result?

  • 1. Endorsements do not help much. Howard Dean had a stellar cast of people willing to vouch for him (Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, Martin Sheen and even Tom Harkin, a very popular senator from Iowa) but none of them made much difference

  • 2. Unions are less important than everyone thought. The two candidates with the most union backing (Gephardt and Dean) did the worst. The unions' much vaunted organisational skills did not translate into votes

  • 3. Past performance is no indication of future results. Winning Iowa does not guarantee John Kerry the nomination. In fact only once in the past 12 times has a winner in Iowa reached the White House

Now the political circus moves onto New Hampshire where Democrats will see what the Iowans did and quite likely do the opposite. It is a weird way to choose a candidate.


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