Desperate to Win

MANCHESTER, N.H. — The man who had the most influence over the New Hampshire Democratic primary wasn't anywhere near New Hampshire. In fact, he's not even a Democrat. He's President Bush.

Forty-six percent — a significant plurality — of the voters who participated in New Hampshire's primary said they felt angry at the Bush administration, according to the network exit poll conducted by Edison/Mitofsky. They feel bullied by the Bush administration, the Republican-controlled Congress, the conservative talk-show hosts, and the growing conservative influence on the news media. Those angry Democrats were expected to rally behind former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the candidate who promises to stand up to Bush and the conservative bullies.

But they didn't. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts edged out Dean among angry Democrats, 37 percent to 35 percent. The thing that makes Democrats most angry is the war in Iraq, the issue that ignited Dean's campaign. Nearly two-thirds of New Hampshire Democrats said they disapproved of the U.S. decision to go to war with Iraq. But that group of Democrats voted for Kerry over Dean, 41 percent to 30 percent. Kerry took Dean's signature issue away from him.

Two kinds of voters came to the polls in New Hampshire. Issue voters said they were looking for a candidate who agreed with them on the major issues. They divided evenly between Kerry and Dean. Strategic voters said they were looking for the candidate with the best chance of beating Bush. No contest there: Kerry won hands down, with 56 percent.

Despite their opposition to the war, Democrats do not want to make this election a referendum on Iraq. The most important issues to New Hampshire Democrats were health care and jobs. Iraq came third. Democrats want to talk about domestic issues. But to do that, they have to find a candidate who can match Bush on military expertise and national security. That's what they see in Kerry.

Kerry has a theme to his campaign: overcoming adversity. It goes back to the Vietnam War, where he served courageously. Jim Rassman, whose life Kerry saved in Vietnam, came to Iowa to campaign for Kerry and said, "He could have been shot and killed at any time. And so could I. I figure I owe this man my life."

Kerry courageously opposed the war when he returned home. He testified before Congress in 1971, saying, "We wish that a merciful God could wipe away our own memories of that service."

Last year, Kerry survived cancer. "I feel fantastic, ready to roll, back on the trail," he said as he left the hospital last February.

When Kerry got into the presidential race, he looked like the Washington insider. His campaign was tanking in New Hampshire, a must-win state for him. Just last month, Kerry was politically flat on his back but still determined to win. "I'm very confident that the next days are going to prove this election is only starting," he declared on December 15.

So he went to Iowa to jump-start his campaign. It worked brilliantly. His surprise win in Iowa made him "the Comeback Kerry." As political consultant Paul Begala put it, "All of a sudden, John Kerry, who [had once] looked like the front-runner and the establishment figure, was transformed into Seabiscuit, the come-from-behind horse."

New Hampshire voters took another look at him. That was especially true of women, who powered Kerry's surge. He scored 5 points better among women than among men, according to the exit poll. What do women see in Kerry? One Manchester woman explained, "He's dashing. And he's a former military hero, so he has the kind of Sean Connery/James Bond appeal."

Kerry also offers security. "He talks about his Vietnam experience," Begala says. "He relates his stories of remarkable heroism, and the implied message in all of that is, 'I'll keep you safe.' "

When New Hampshire Democrats finally headed to the polls, they thought they had to choose between venting and winning. Among the 29 percent who said they were looking for a candidate who "stands up for what he believes," Dean had a better than 2-to-1 lead over Kerry. But the 32 percent looking for someone with "the right experience" or someone who could defeat Bush went for Kerry over Dean by 6-to-1. Dean's lack of national or international experience and his seemingly erratic temperament made him look like a risky proposition among Democrats desperate to win.

Why not Wesley Clark? The retired four-star general certainly matches Kerry in military experience and national-security credentials. Clark competed with Kerry among New Hampshire voters as the most electable candidate, with Dean as the outsider, and with Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut as the candidate who could attract Republicans. Now Clark is vying with Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina to be the candidate who can attract Southerners.

Voters looking for each of those qualities see Clark as a second choice. Had he run in Iowa as the candidate who could offer the whole package, Clark might have ended up as the front-runner. But he bypassed Iowa and lost his chance.

Five candidates came out of New Hampshire claiming momentum. "Thank you, New Hampshire, for helping my campaign regain its momentum," Dean said. But it's hard to see how anyone but Kerry can claim victory. Everyone else had a disappointing finish. Kerry's next big challenge is to prove on February 3 that he can win in all parts of the country. His New Hampshire bounce may be big enough to do just that.