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Did Dean peak way too early?

National | PRESIDENTIAL POLITICS: From outsider to front-runner to outsider again, Howard Dean will look to recapture the momentum that made him such a big target in the early going. But with the Democratic race reshuffled, is it too late?

Issue: "Iraq: The other caucuses," Jan. 31, 2004

There's always been three tickets out of Iowa," Sen. John Kerry said Sunday on the eve of the first voting in the 2004 primary season. With polls showing a four-way statistical dead heat, he would have been happy to leave the state in the cargo hold. Instead, he headed to New Hampshire in first class, staging a come-from-behind win that instantly catapulted him to front-runner status and threw into question the political future of Howard Dean, who had reigned as the presumptive for more than six months.

For Rep. Dick Gephardt, there were no such doubts about the future. After banking his career on the Iowa caucuses, he finished a distant fourth, effectively ending his second bid for the White House. While the top three candidates headed immediately to New Hampshire for a final week of frantic campaigning, Rep. Gephardt limped home to Missouri to announce his retirement.

Just two weeks earlier, not even the savviest of political observers would have predicted a 1-2-3 finish by Sen. Kerry, Sen. John Edwards, and Dr. Dean. Polls had shown the former Vermont governor with a big lead, and party luminaries had lined up behind him, hoping to avoid a long nomination battle. The Dean campaign was looking for back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire to force seven other challengers out of the race.

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Rather than a quick coronation, however, Iowa turned the nomination into a dogfight that could last for weeks, if not months. New Hampshire's Jan. 27 primary may winnow the field a bit further, but all the campaigns quickly turned their attention to Feb. 3, when voters in seven states go to the polls. With at least three candidates likely to claim wins on that day, the nominating fight is sure to last through March 2, when 12 states-including California, New York, and Texas-hold their primary contests.

That's a bleak scenario for Democratic leaders, who front-loaded the primary schedule to pick a quick winner and minimize the intra-party bloodletting. While Democrats bicker, President Bush can remain presidential, reaching out to centrist voters with new policy initiatives and solidifying his conservative base with gestures such as the recess appointment of Charles Pickering to the federal bench (see p. 24).

As the Democratic contest drags on, the White House can take special comfort in the fact that Rep. Gephardt is no longer one of the contestants. Top Republican strategists have long hinted that the Missouri congressman would be the president's most formidable challenger, thanks to his 14 terms in the House of Representatives and his close ties with union leaders.

Indeed, Rep. Gephardt had relied heavily on Big Labor in Iowa. With endorsements from nearly two dozen unions, he could boast the sort of grass-roots organization that usually helps to turn out voters for Iowa's byzantine caucus-night ordeal. And for much of the campaign, his strategy seemed to be working: Even in late December, polls showed Iowa as a Gephardt-Dean contest.

Armed with those poll results, the Gephardt campaign opened fire on Dr. Dean throughout January, hoping to drive up the front-runner's negatives and woo undecided voters. While Dr. Dean did appear to suffer from the attacks, Rep. Gephardt didn't reap the benefits. Polls showed that last-minute decisions went heavily in favor of Sens. Kerry and Edwards, while many Iowans, annoyed by the negative tone of Rep. Gephardt's ads, abandoned his campaign.

Without the fabled "Iowa bounce" and without the cash to contest upcoming primaries, the Gephardt camp knew the race was over. "My campaign to fight for working people may be ending tonight, but our fight will never end," he said in an election-night concession speech.

The next day, in St. Louis, Rep. Gephardt made it clear his political career-as well as his presidential aspirations-had come to an end. Ruling out a Senate run, he said he was "returning to private life after a long time in the warm light of public service."

Iowa may have knocked Rep. Gephardt out of the race, but his already-struggling campaign was not the biggest loser of the night. That dubious distinction went to Dr. Dean, who botched a huge lead in the final days of the race. Despite tightening polls, he was confident enough to leave Iowa on the final weekend of the campaign, opting to attend church with former President Jimmy Carter in Plains, Ga.

That confidence proved to be misplaced. His humiliating third-place finish removed the aura of inevitability that had pushed him to the top of national polls. Experts predicted his vaunted fundraising machine would suffer a breakdown, and his biggest weakness-doubts about his electability-would be magnified in upcoming contests.

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