The State of the Race

On Tuesday Sen. John Kerry racked up his 16th, 17th and 18th victories out of 20 primaries and caucuses, reinforcing his stand as front-runner for his party’s nomination and ceding nothing—no close calls, no hustings embarrassments—to Sen. John Edwards.

We know who the Dean voters were, and we could picture them—kids at the MeetUp, people entering politics for the first time. And we have a sense of who the Edwards voter is—someone who is still shopping, who is drawn to his sunny indignation or his Southernness. But who are the Kerry voters? The reigning cliché is that they’re simply Democrats who want to win, who’ve settled on him as the guy who can beat George W. Bush. I think of them as union operatives, union leaders, savvy teachers union communications directors, party operatives and party donors. Which is to say the party establishment that Howard Dean threatened and John Edwards has not so far succeeded in seducing. But when Democrats are on fire over the electability of a man and not the man himself—well, if I were a Democrat I’d worry about that down the road.

When putative candidate Kerry is dinged and dinged again by the journalistic and political vetting process, when his votes and stands and record are inspected for implications, when the conviction that he’s electable begins to wane—and all these things will happen, at least to some degree—what will it do to pro-Kerry fervor in the rank and file?

I continue to be perplexed by this fact: One of the reliable dynamics in this campaign has been the more you see Mr. Kerry the less you like him, and the more you see Mr. Edwards the more you like him. But there doesn’t seem any Edwards groundswell at the moment, and he’s everywhere. A Democratic political professional told me the other night that Mr. Edwards never got enough time in the clear; Mr. Dean and Wesley Clark stayed in too long and kept him from emerging. I think I hear an Edwards line coming if he loses: We didn’t lose, we ran out of time. But I guess I see it as the Democratic establishment against the upstart—“age and treachery will beat youth and exuberance every time.”

Super Tuesday looms—California, Georgia, New York, Ohio and six other states—and this I suppose will be John Edwards’s last chance. If he is to succeed he must begin to win; if he is to win he must do it now, in the big voting on Tuesday.

He has one thing in his favor, and it’s potentially big: the debates. It is in debate that Mr. Edwards has always shown strength, made an impression, stood as a likely alternative. If he is to alter the outcome, he’s going to do it in debate. Tonight.

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As for the Republicans, the president’s announcement on the marriage amendment was a decision to join a battle that had already begun. Massachusetts’ courts and San Francisco’s mayor forced his hand. He did what he had to do, and what he’d long said he’d do: take the stand that marriage is between one man and one woman, period. No one knows if supporters can get two-thirds of the House and the Senate and three-fourths of the state legislatures, but however it ends it will end with the votes of the representatives of the people, including the state legislator who lives down the block, and not by our black-robed left-wing masters in the courts.

Television treated it only as a political matter: Mr. Bush playing to his base. Indeed he gave his base what he told he’d give them: action if needed. He no doubt hoped it would not be. The press misses this story. It is true that there is a broad consensus in the United States against same-sex marriage. But it is also true, as Mr. Bush and his men well know, that even though people ask for leadership on social issues, when an American politician talks about those issues, he is painted as a moralizer, and in time the characterization sticks. America dislikes politicians who moralize, and they dislike no one more than Republican politicians who moralize.

Mr. Bush’s decision looks easy, but I think it was not. The president and his team would have loved to have avoided it. The left overplayed its hand and forced the issue. For now this will benefit Mr. Bush. And Messrs. Kerry and Edwards have given themselves no glory by saying they’re against homosexual marriage but refusing to make clear what they would do to protect states from having it imposed on them.

It would be good, however, to see the president speak about American open-mindedness and what it means in practice and theory. America is now a country—it was not always—in which people feel free to hold whatever private views on all human groups and behaviors while bowing to the moral necessity to show respect and regard for all groups that are different, in whatever ways. We have gone beyond tolerance in America; we have arrived at affection and sympathy and mutual respect. It has been beautiful to see, and I have seen it in my lifetime. It’s worth talking about.

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It has been a big political week for the president, with his burly and more pointedly partisan than usual speech to the Republican governors on Monday, then his marriage announcement Tuesday. When he twitted John Kerry to the governors he signaled whom the White House not only assumes will be the Democratic nominee but prefers as an opponent. Those around the president think Mr. Kerry comes across as cold, aloof and a typical pol—“Al Gore without the charm,” as one of them put it this week.

But they are convinced it is going to be a close race. That’s not just spin to rev the troops; it’s their conviction. They don’t see us as a 50-50 country but as a 48-48 country, with the fight over the remaining 4% of the population. It took me aback when I heard this—not that it was surprising, but it reminded me of something Lee Atwater told me 20 years ago. Forty percent of the country will vote Democrat no matter what, he said, and 40% will vote Republican. Every presidential contest is a wrestling match for the 20% in the middle.

That was true then, or at least the polls bore it out. Now that 20 has shrunk to four. I’m not sure what that means. No one else is either. But somehow it strikes me as both inevitable and not good.