Dean vs. Kerry

So I watched the democrats’ first debate the other night. Everything that happened pretty much confirmed what I’d already thought about each candidate. I’ll post more about each candidate later.

There was one interesting subplot to the evening, though — one that will prove the first big story of the campaign. It was Howard Dean and John Kerry, sniping at each other all night, as they have in the weeks leading up to the debate.

Why would Kerry, the presumptive front-runner, repeatedly go after underdog Howard Dean? Because several months into Dean’s insurgent candidacy, during which he capitalized on opposition to war with Iraq and fired up democratic audiences, he has now pulled even with Kerry in New Hampshire.

Kerry’s entire candidacy depends on a win in New Hampshire. He won’t win in Iowa, and Leiberman and Edwards are already duking it out for South Carolina. Lose in a friendly Northeastern state, and the Kerry campaign would be on a permanent defensive. The candidate himself would be swallowed up by a sea of candidates eager to steal the momentum for themselves.

In the kind of David vs. Goliath battle New Hampshire voters love, Dean could well slay Kerry. Kerry’s managers recognized this, but they couldn’t go on the offensive before now. Not without risking a backlash from the rabidly anti-war Hollywood elites and liberal academics who have fervently supported Dean’s anti-war position.

Now, though, with the war over and most of the doves’ dire predictions proven wrong, the plan is clear: sieze on Dean’s typically blunt comments and lack of foreign policy experience to show he doesn’t have the national security credentials to defeat Bush. Discredit him, as many anti-war liberals have temporarily been discredited, so that he is marginalized through the remainder of the campaign as the guy who was “wrong on the war.”

This is one moment — a brief one — when pro-war candidates can bask in the military victory in Iraq before Bush’s atrocious postwar planning and economic issues begin to userp the headlines. Kerry would do well to drive home the point Joe Leiberman made during the debate: “No democrat will be elected in 2004 who isn’t strong on national defense, and this war was a test of that.”

It’ll be a contest worth watching.

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