John Kerry’s stinging defeat of Howard Dean in the New Hampshire primary could derail a bandwagon full of recent Dean converts, from former Vice President Al Gore to New York City Council Speaker Gifford Miller.
Senator Kerry of Massachusetts took 39 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, leading Dr. Dean, the former governor of Vermont, by 13 percent with more than three-quarters of New Hampshire’s precincts reporting Jan. 27. Mr. Kerry finished strong after languishing for months at the bottom of the public-opinion polls. His win demonstrated the appeal of his energetic campaigning and his argument that he is the Democrat best suited to challenge President George W. Bush in November.
Senator John Edwards of North Carolina and General Wesley Clark stayed in the game as they headed to their native South, while a fifth-place finish cast the future of Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut into question.
The wide margin in New Hampshire denied Dr. Dean the “comeback kid” label that Bill Clinton rode from New Hampshire to victory in 1992.
“We came in a solid second,” Dr. Dean said on Larry King Live .
Dr. Dean’s supporters may have felt it coming when a literal Dean bandwagon departed from 41st Street off Lexington Avenue four days before the primary. The wagon was a rented 56-seat Coach USA standard, and aboard were some of Dr. Dean’s star supporters, led by Mr. Miller. A few weeks ago, Mr. Miller and the others would have figured to be in a triumphant mood. After all, their man was the front-runner. But then came Senator Kerry’s smashing victory in Iowa.
As the bus made its way north, Dr. Dean was hitting his nadir, slipping below 20 percent in New Hampshire’s various polls. In a testament to the candidate’s fading fortunes, only four of the 24 Council members who endorsed Dr. Dean showed up. His New York strategists were busy worrying about alienated Jews. Nobody from the daily press bothered to see the bus off.
Responding to a question about Dr. Dean’s changed fortunes, Mr. Miller conceded that the candidate has “had a bad couple of days.” But, he added, Dr. Dean “has had a good two years.”
Mr. Miller’s endorsement came on Dec. 8, when some of the city’s savviest politicians and donors decided to place their bets on the former Vermont governor and onetime Upper East Side resident. Mr. Miller was joined by the chairman of the Queens County Democratic organization, Thomas Manton, a conservative Democrat and a former Congressman. Mr. Manton is a savvy operator, so his endorsement had special significance: It was seen as a sign that party elders were coming to terms with the Dean insurgency.
Mr. Manton wasn’t on the bus to New Hampshire, but one eager rising star in the Council’s Queens delegation, Eric Gioia, was. After flirting with Mr. Clark, Mr. Gioia had jumped on board for Dr. Dean when the former Vermont governor was at his strongest. As the bus driver revved the engine, Mr. Gioia, 30, wearing jeans and a long-sleeved Timberland T-shirt, speculated on the kind of story he might write if he were just an observer.
“You might wonder how can these people be so happy when they’re getting on a bus that looks like it’s going off a cliff,” he said. Sure enough, the pro-Dean politicians seemed, at that moment, part of a lemming-like rush that would surely have a bad end.
The pundits were wondering that, too.
“We’d all gotten accustomed to thinking that Dean destroyed the Democratic establishment in the fall when he rocketed ahead of their candidates, developed a new way of fundraising, and bashed them silly,” noted the blogger Joshua Micah Marshall in a comment that also applies locally. “But maybe that’s wrong. Perhaps when he really delivered that establishment a fatal blow was in the winter when he got all of them … to endorse him and then, with them in tow, drove off a cliff.”
Mr. Gioia shrugged: “That’s politics. You may be down, but you’re not out until the game is over.”
Mr. Miller and Mr. Gioia then took their seats in the middle of the bus, Mr. Gioia seated next to his fiancée, Lisa Esler, who doubles as Mr. Miller’s chief fund-raiser. Behind them were the two other Council members: Annabel Palma of the Bronx, and another member of the Council’s youth corps, Joel Rivera, the 25-year-old majority leader of the City Council. Mr. Rivera stepped in to defuse a stand-off over whether the bus was on or off the record, and starting when.
“You need somebody to make a gaffe?” he asked helpfully. “I’ll make one.”
The mood on the bus was cheerful, but virtually nobody was talking about Howard Dean. Sure, there were a few Columbia University students in the front, memorizing their talking points off the Dean flyers and filming each other with a digital video-camera. But among the politicians who were headed north to knock on doors for Dr. Dean, the talk was of almost anything but the Vermont doctor and his shaky standing in the polls. Nobody even took out the board game Run-Off: The Game of Presidential Campaigning, which Mr. Gioia had thoughtfully brought along.
Mr. Gioia was reading a book about St. Francis of Assisi. “The prayer of St. Francis is my favorite prayer,” he said. (It begins: “O Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace”-mild sentiments for a guy sharpening his bayonet on his way to the political equivalent of Verdun.)
Not to be shown up, Mr. Miller was reading a book about Cicero. “Do you know what the penalty for killing your father was in ancient Rome?” he asked somewhere outside Stamford, Conn. As a matter of fact, his listeners didn’t, but Mr. Miller did: The perp would be sewn into a sack with a dog, a cock, a viper and an ape, then thrown into the sea.
The younger staffers were all reading Hillary’s Turn, by Michael Tomasky.
As the bus chugged north, The Observer brought the conversation round to the post-Iowa interview that Dr. Dean and his wife, Judith, had given ABC’s Diane Sawyer.
“They were very credible as themselves,” Mr. Miller said hopefully. The conversation then turned to Mr. Miller’s wife, Pamela, a corporate lawyer.
“For Christmas in 1996, I got her boots to keep her feet warm while she was out campaigning for me,” Mr. Miller recalled. “It was like getting her a dishwasher. She doesn’t relish campaigning, but sometimes she likes it.”
Then the talk turned to local politics, including Mr. Miller’s as-yet-undeclared Mayoral campaign. Mr. Miller was asked whether the fact that he’s not a member of one of New York’s political tribes-the Jews, the outer-borough Catholics, etc.-will be a liability.
“A lot of WASP’s have been elected, you know,” he deadpanned.
After the bus crossed into New Hampshire, Mr. Miller rose to rally the troops.
“There are 200,000 voters in the New Hampshire primary,” Mr. Miller told the passengers. “Everybody’s got to go and convince 10 undecided voters!”
“I guess that means everybody here’s going to have to register to vote in New Hampshire,” joked Mr. Rivera as the bus pulled into a Days Inn outside Nashua.
The Enemy Approaches!
Then, as though conjured up by the gods of narrative, a red, white and blue bus loomed out of the darkness. It was the “Real Deal Express,” John Kerry’s press bus. Alerted, Mr. Rivera came barreling out of the Days Inn in his snappy suit with a Dean sign held over his head: “Dean! Dean! Dean!” he chanted. It was his first time in New Hampshire and, he remarked, “I guess they aren’t used to this kind of confrontational politics up here.”
Meanwhile a Dean supporter, Bonnie Maslin, stood talking to passengers on the Dean bus, the open door blocking the Real Deal Express’ path past the hotel. Mr. Kerry’s hefty driver opened his door and leaned out.
“Sweetheart, how hard is it to close that fucking door?” he asked.
Dr. Dean’s supporters are hoping that this topsy-turvy primary season will leave the former governor in a competitive position on Super Tuesday, March 2, when the campaign arrives in New York. There, an organization led by Mr. Miller and dozens of other local luminaries appears to have an early advantage over the other campaigns.
“For the first time in modern history, the New York primary is actually going to count for a lot,” said Judith Hope, a former state party chairwoman who was an early Dean supporter.
Senator Kerry, thanks to his long run of low poll numbers, has relatively sparse support among New York’s public figures. His backers include 2001 Democratic Mayoral nominee Mark Green, U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney and Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields.
Two other candidates are tapped into local power bases: Mr. Clark has the dean of the state’s Congressional delegation, Charles Rangel of Harlem, in his camp, while Joseph Lieberman is supported by State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who has leaned on Assembly members and state lobbyists to back the Connecticut Senator. And leading John Edwards’ New York City operation is a City Councilman from Brooklyn, Bill DeBlasio, who will look like a genius if Mr. Edwards sweeps into the White House.
But high-profile endorsements are no guarantee of success in the city. A pressure cooker of media and public attention, New York has proved a trap in the past. In 1988, Al Gore’s big New York City backer, Ed Koch, got into a public war with Jesse Jackson that may have cost Mr. Gore the nomination. In 1992, WCBS-TV’s Marcia Kramer hit Bill Clinton with the question about his past marijuana use that provoked his immortal “I didn’t inhale” response.
Two early dangers are starting to emerge. One is the Sharpton trap, which could menace any candidate off whom the Reverend Al Sharpton decides to play before a hometown crowd. Mr. Sharpton has already raised his profile by hammering Dr. Dean for failing to appoint black deputies in Vermont. But that’s getting old, and the candidates’ appearance in New York could bring the reverend back to some homegrown tensions, like his feud with Kerry supporter Mark Green over allegedly racist campaigning in the 2001 Mayoral primary.
The other trap-specifically for Dr. Dean-is the city’s Jewish community. Dr. Dean’s backers are working to soften up some Jewish New York voters and donors who were spooked by his calling for America to avoid taking sides in the Middle East. His campaign has hired a husband-and-wife political-consulting team specializing in Jewish affairs, Zeesy and Joel Schnur, which called a primary-night meeting to “help brainstorm about the best ways for Governor Dean to make a real impact and turn around some of the negatives that have been mistakenly associated with his positions on Israel and the use of military force,” according to an e-mailed invitation. “Governor Dean in fact favors an assertive, muscular and interventionist foreign policy,” the e-mail, from Ms. Schnur, went on to insist.
In the end, it may not be the endorsers’ names that matter so much as their advice, said Democratic political consultant Howard Wolfson.
“In New York City, endorsements don’t get you votes,” he said. “They’re more like guides through Hades.”