In a lengthy interview with George Stephanopoulos that aired on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, Fred Thompson became the latest endangered presidential candidate to invoke John Kerry’s name.
Asked what kind of showing he will need to make in Iowa, where he now hovers around 10 percent in polls, Mr. Thompson replied, “It’s hard to say. But I’m planning on doing well. I think John Kerry had about nine percent at this stage of the game and went on to win. So, you know, Iowa changes sometimes in a very short order.”
Other languishing aspirants also take heart from the Kerry example.
John Edwards, whose support in national polls has eroded steadily all year, has likened Hillary Clinton’s head-of-the-pack position to Howard Dean’s strength at this point in 2003—with the obvious suggestion that Mr. Edwards, like Mr. Kerry in 2003, is waiting to ambush her at the last minute.
And Chris Dodd, who regularly loses to the margin of error in surveys, pointed out back in September that “John Kerry was at four percent in the polls on December 23, 2003…and four weeks later, he was the nominee when people really focused in on it. So I’m very confident about where we are.”
On the surface, Mr. Kerry’s status as the patron saint of the struggling also-ran makes sense. It certainly is true that his primary bid looked like a lost cause at this point in 2003, that his numbers only began to grow in Iowa in the closing weeks, and that after winning Iowa the rest of the states fell like dominos for him.
But Mr. Kerry’s 2004 surge was attended by a unique set of circumstances. And to consider how and why he won four years ago is to realize just how thoroughly Messrs. Thompson, Edwards and Dodd are grasping at straws.
Mr. Dodd’s use of the Kerry analogy is the easiest to shoot down. The Connecticut Senator has been running for a year but has never threatened to break out of single digits in polls. He has campaigned relentlessly and raised enough money to fund a respectable operation, but there is plainly no appetite for him among the Democratic electorate.
Mr. Kerry, by contrast, placed at or near the top in polls from the end of 2002, when he began running, until the middle part of 2003, when his bid seemed to have been undercut by Howard Dean’s rise. That Mr. Kerry was originally anointed as the Democratic front-runner is a key distinction with Mr. Dodd, because it positioned Mr. Kerry as the default second choice of most Democrats when their doubts about Dr. Dean grew.
The pecking order on the Democratic side is much different now. If voters sour on Mrs. Clinton, they’re likely to turn to Barack Obama. And if they sour on him, there’s John Edwards. And after Mr. Edwards, there’s probably Bill Richardson. At what point they would even begin considering Mr. Dodd is unclear. It’s more likely that a new last-minute candidate would emerge if Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama, Mr. Edwards and Mr. Richardson were all to falter.
Similarly flawed is Mr. Edwards’ comparison of Mrs. Clinton to Dr. Dean, who began the 2004 race in obscurity only to emerge as the front-runner in the fall of 2003. But Mrs. Clinton has been the Democratic front-runner for 2008 since the moment Mr. Kerry conceded the ‘04 election to President Bush. Her base of support is deeper and more durable than Dr. Dean’s was. Dr. Dean had a solid core of some of the most committed believers known to man, but he only became the front-runner when establishment figures began signing on because of perceived inevitability. The instant that inevitability was dented, that establishment support was gone. It will take something much more severe to knock Mrs. Clinton off her pedestal.
Mr. Thompson, at least, fits the Kerry mold in one regard: He began the race with high poll numbers and strong support, only to disappoint on the stump. But, even as he languished in single digits in late 2003, there was never much traffic blocking Mr. Kerry from the front of the pack, with the shaky Dr. Dean representing his most formidable obstacle. Recouping lost momentum will be much trickier for Mr. Thompson.
Republicans don’t see a tactical problem in nominating Rudy Giuliani, who—unlike Dr. Dean four years ago—can point voters to polls showing him as the strongest general election candidate. And Mitt Romney, for all the doubt about his sincerity, offers a more reassuring style than Dr. Dean ever did.
Actually, the one candidate who has invoked Mr. Kerry with some justification is probably John McCain, the original G.O.P. front-runner. After his mid-summer meltdown, Mr. McCain has recovered enough ground to run competitively in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Like Mr. Kerry, it appears that Mr. McCain retained a presidential image among his party’s voters even as his campaign hit the rocks. The difference there, though, is that Mr. McCain can’t mortgage a pricey Beacon Hill house to fund his campaign, the way Mr. Kerry did. Plus, Mr. McCain remains anathema to a chunk of his party’s base in a way Mr. Kerry never was.
The 2008 longshots will keep mentioning the Kerry example all the way until the January 3 caucuses. Then, unless one of them actually wins, they’ll have to find something else to distinguish them from the dozens of candidates before them who struggled early and found no miracles on caucus day.