Jewish World Review Jan. 26, 2004 / 3 Shevat, 5764

Zev Chafets

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The big hitters step up | The Democratic candidates' debates have been like baseball in May - slow, mostly dull contests at the start of an interminable season.

Thursday night's debate in New Hampshire was different. Sure the Rumble in the Tundra featured the usual cliches packaged as one-minute profundities delivered in the by-now familiar styles of the remaining seven players. But in politics, like baseball, timing is everything. The Iowa caucuses put us past the All-Star break and into the pennant race. People are starting to really pay attention.

That's bad news for Howard Dean and Wesley Clark.

Dean, of course, needed a big play in New Hampshire to get past his Iowa breakdown. He didn't get it. All he did was set up Al Sharpton's patronizing jibe: "If I had spent the money you did and got 18%, I'd still be in Iowa hooting and hollering." Sharpton was sticking a cruel needle into a busted Internet bubble. Dean may be a doctor, but he started his career on Wall Street, and it shows. Up close, he's nothing more than a cynical suit who raised a pot of money from teenagers, gullible yuppies and boomer malcontents.

Clark was supposed to be the antidote to Dean. Instead, he is competing with him for the paranoid wing of the party. In the debate, he was given a chance to disassociate himself from his supporter Michael Moore's charge that President Bush was a Vietnam-era deserter - and turned it down.

Peter Jennings asked, with evident astonishment, if Clark actually believed the allegation. Clark replied that he hadn't bothered to check it out, but hey, Moore is a great American and everybody has the right of free speech.

"A lot of people say it," Clark observed blandly - the same explanation Dean gave earlier this year for mentioning the "theory" that Bush knew in advance about 9/11.

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Clark also was chided for being a Democrat of convenience. In fact, he appears to be a bipartisan concoction, part Howard Dean, part Richard Nixon, with a touch of Alexander Haig. Putting down John Kerry as a junior officer was just the sort of Haigian grandiosity you'd expect from a general who's spent his life judging people by their rank.

Kerry may have been a short-term lieutenant, but he's been running for President all his life, and it shows. During the debate, he kept his composure and adhered to the Hippocratic oath of electoral politics: "First, do no harm to yourself." That may not sound like much, but in this field, it could be enough.

John Edwards also had a good debate in New Hampshire, despite the fact that he mangled the Defense of Marriage Act (not the night's worse blunder; Sharpton confused the Federal Reserve Board with the International Monetary Fund).

Edwards is an attractive candidate, more animated than Kerry and much more telegenic. Still, when he was asked about his lack of presidential qualifications after only one term in the Senate, he squirmed. The fact is, he's too green to be top banana, especially in wartime. It doesn't mean he can't get nominated, only that he's about as electable as Wendell Wilkie.

Joe Lieberman and Dennis Kucinich formed the ideological bookends of the debate. Kucinich, who wants to pay reparations to Iraq, will probably get almost as many votes in New Hampshire as Lieberman, the only candidate who supports the war, tax cuts, motherhood and apple pie. At one point he even invoked the name of G-d.

These views put Lieberman on the party fringe. That's why, absent a Bush breakdown, the Democrats - no matter who it is they nominate - aren't going all the way in the 2004 season.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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