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Campaign ‘Times’

February 17, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a campaign times look at today’s Wisconsin primary and beyond. It comes from chief “New York Times” political correspondent Adam Nagourney. Adam, welcome.

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Thank you. How are you?

JIM LEHRER: Just fine. Another big win for John Kerry expected tonight?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Yeah, it looks that way. You look at the polls coming into this, it looks like he is in the position to win. I think it’s 16 of 17… excuse me, it’s 15 of 17 primaries and caucuses.

JIM LEHRER: Nothing’s happened today to change that expectation?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Not right now, you know. I mean, obviously people are still voting, but all the indications in all camps expect that Kerry will win and win by a pretty significant number. The other question, obviously, is how Governor Dean is going to do and also how John Edwards is going to do.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

ADAM NAGOURNEY: It gets into one of those things where, with the way politics is, you know, Howard Dean might… comes in a poor third, that’s probably a problem, and John Edwards comes within 7.3 percent, that’s good. You know, that’s all that’s going to happen tonight.

JIM LEHRER: Well, what is the situation on Howard Dean, based on your reporting? Let’s say he does poorly tonight, as expected. What can we expect him to do?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: I’m going to not try to guess what he would do, just because, I guess, because of what he has been doing over the past couple of weeks. It’s hard to predict.

But let me answer you this way. I think that there is going to be– in fact, there already is– a lot of pressure from his own advisers to get out of the race; that the fact of the matter is, at a certain point, a lot of voters have voted on this race. A lot of people have seen him and they decided to vote against him. It’s not like if we were having this discussion pre-January, when all the media was like, “oh, he’s up and he’s down and she’s up and she’s down.” None of that’s really real. Well, this is real. And if Howard Dean loses here in Wisconsin, that means he will have lost 17 states. And I’ll point out to you, he will have lost in a state that he said, I believe a week and a half ago, that he intended to win. So at a certain point, it almost doesn’t matter what Dean does.

The reality is that he’ll effectively be out of the race. A lot of Democrats will consider him out of the race and his own advisers will be asking him to get out of the race. Now, whether that means that he actually resigns, quits the race, keeps running, runs a guerrilla campaign the way Jerry Brown did in 1992… far be it for me to try to guess, but the reality is, I think, that he’ll be gone.

JIM LEHRER: Define a guerrilla campaign.

ADAM NAGOURNEY: A guerrilla campaign would be sort of hanging on, showing up at whatever events there are– forums, debates– doing, you know, renegade news conferences in the hopes that something goes wrong with John Ed– excuse me, with John Kerry and that the party has, whatever the obstacle is, buyer’s remorse– for Howard Dean, I guess, seller’s remorse- – and wants to take it back.

The problem with that strategy is that, if something goes wrong with John Kerry, which, of course, is hardly impossible in this kind of environment, I think John Edwards is much better positioned to be the alternative. So Howard Dean’s in a very difficult position. His original campaign manager– I shouldn’t say his original– two campaign managers ago, Joe Trippi, worked for Jerry Brown in I believe ’92, and sort of had this idea early on and I believe told Governor Dean to think about this, to sort of hang on in the event that things don’t work out with Kerry in the end.

So, whether or not he wants to try that… but again, it’s hard to do that if you keep losing and losing and losing by the margins that he is losing. And people here, people here, people in Iowa, people in New Hampshire, people in South Carolina, they knew him. He campaigned there. He advertised there. They saw him on television. It’s not as if they’re rejecting somebody based on “they don’t know.” John Edwards might argue, and I’ll let him do it if he wants to on your show, that he’s in a different situation, that he’s sort of a victim of the momentum of John Kerry and people haven’t had a chance to hear him. — whatever. But in the case of Howard Dean, that’s a harder argument to make.

JIM LEHRER: Is there no question that John Edwards is going to stay, no matter what happens tonight?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Um, I guess I’ve learned in products never to say “no question.”

JIM LEHRER: I know.

ADAM NAGOURNEY: But I will tell you that he has specifically said that, regardless of the outcome, he is going to stay. The only thing that gives me any hesitation, which… if he were to, say, come in third place or a poor third place– and I don’t want to tell you there’s no reason to think that’s going to happen– but if that were to happen, it might be harder for him to get the attention he wants. But all along, he has wanted this to be a two-person race between him and John Kerry. He wants it to be, during the two weeks leading up between today and what we call “Super Tuesday,” which is March 2 or 3.

JIM LEHRER: March 2, yeah.

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Thanks, yeah. I need calendars for that. But that’s what he wants. So he’ll take, I think, any kind of second place showing at sort of justification to stay in.

Now, again, I’ll point out, this is welcome to American politics here. Edwards has won one state. The state is the state where he was born. I think he has come in fourth seven times, second five times. I mean, he really has not had a great year, to be honest. But, it makes sense for him, I guess, politically, to put himself in the position to be “someone else but Kerry” in the event there is some sort of second, you know, mass reconsideration on the part of Democratic voters about who they want to vote against bush, which is certainly possible.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Meanwhile, assuming that the results are a certain way tonight and Kerry really does well– back to Kerry for a moment– will you… is it fair to, based on your reporting, that he’s going to continue to ignore whoever is left on the Democratic side and run right after George W. Bush?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Absolutely. For a lot of reasons, it’s not in his interests to focus on the other Democrats. So far the campaign that John Edwards has been running does not really force him to do that. John Edwards has only made the most tentative attempts to distinguish himself with John Kerry. There’s a lot of pressure on these candidates not to go “negative.”

John Kerry has been running against George Bush for a while now. And if you look at what he’s saying on the campaign trail, he’s barely talking about issues having to do with Democratic primary voters other than what has been, once again, the issue of this year, “I can beat George Bush.” That’s the sort of basic argument that he’s making.

He will move from here to Ohio tomorrow. Ohio is one of those states that vote on March 2. But also, importantly, Jim, it’s also one the swing states in a general election campaign. So you will see him going there in the pretense– I don’t want to suggest anything dishonest, but there’s two things going on here– in the pretense of the primary that’s coming up, but in fact, what’s going on there is he’s beginning to do some work in what will be an important swing state.

The calendar works to their advantage, in a way, because… and that’s why I think they actually do want John Edwards to stay in the race. It allows him to keep running this campaign. He keeps having, every Tuesday night, another big victory nights, again Edwards is not really attacking him. The story out of this campaign is mostly these candidates attacking Bush. It’s not a bad thing for him. And he gets, in this case– between Ohio, Florida, I mean, Maryland– there’s a lot of swing states in the general election coming up in the primary calendar.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Adam, thank you very much.

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Thank you.