RALEIGH -- Sen. John Edwards has wrapped up his bus tour in Iowa and is now motoring through the much smaller territory of New Hampshire. Meanwhile, some of his own backers are setting the North Carolina senator up for a political fall by putting out the word that he must come in first or second in both contests earlier next year to be a viable presidential candidate.
This is neither good advice nor good spin.
First off, the value of the early presidential caucuses and primaries is mainly symbolic. The number of delegates at stake is small. So how one "does" in Iowa and New Hampshire is largely a function of how one was expected to do and the specifics of the candidate field.
In the Democrats' case, both Iowa and New Hampshire have the equivalent of "near-native sons" that reduce their political value. Former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt won Iowa in 1988 and is from the neighboring state of Missouri. He is now favored to win Iowa in 2004. He must win to stay viable, but unless his win is a very large one, it will elicit little more than a yawn from the political pros and political press.
Similarly, in New Hampshire, New Englanders Howard Dean and John Kerry are running neck-and-neck. One will win. One will likely be second. So what? Neither showing will really tell voters and spinmeisters elsewhere how these candidates will play outside their (relatively small) home base.
Admittedly, the same dynamic applies to John Edwards in the next wave of primaries in early February, when three of 12 contests are to be held in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Edwards, who is a South Carolina native and represents a next-door state to all three, is already expected to do well and would not survive a stumble.
So here's a scenario to think about that puts John Edwards very much into the first tier of candidates by the end of this first phase of the primary campaign. I'm not saying that this scenario is likely (or preferable, all you folks who seem to think I've turned into an Edwards fan). I am saying that it seems at least possible, and doesn't involve setting up too high a bar to jump over in the first two contests. Let's call it the 4-3-2-1 scenario.
First, Edwards comes in 4th in Iowa on Jan. 19, 2004. The primary significance of this would be to bump Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman down to 5th, and presumably out of the race. Lieberman is Edwards' primary rival right now. He occupies the space somewhat left of center that Edwards needs to own to prevail. There is already a sense that this may, indeed, be the result. Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa said the other day that he could see Edwards making it a four-way race in his state. That's bad early news for Lieberman, still technically the "frontrunner" in national name-recognition polls.
Next, Edwards comes in 3rd in New Hampshire on Jan. 27. This would have the effect of taking the wind of the sails of Dick Gephardt, who would presumably have won Iowa several days before. If Gephardt falls to 4th in New Hampshire, he would lose some luster and the significance of his Iowa win would be severely attentuated.
Next, Edwards goes south and west. On Feb. 3, there are currently seven different contests scheduled. Overall, I think he would have to be at least the second-highest vote-getter out of these states, which include Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Carolina, and Oklahoma. This is doable if he wins South Carolina easily and does well in Arizona, New Mexico, Missouri (though Gephardt obviously wins here), and Oklahoma -- places where his brand of Democratic politics might well be a good sell.
Finally, there will be a quick succession of five primaries the following week: Michigan and Washington on Feb. 7, Maine on Feb. 8, and Tennessee and Virginia on Feb. 10. Edwards needs to be the top vote-getter here, winning the southern neighbors outright and picking up strong support in the economically suffering states of Michigan and Washington.
Could this happen? I don't know. But one thing is certain: this is a plausible scenario for emerging from the pack that does not raise expectations too high in Iowa and New Hampshire. That way, if other candidates collapse and Edwards has a real breakthrough early, a bandwagon would be more likely to form.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.