Filling The Gaps

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How well do voters know John Kerry? If they don't know him yet, George W. Bush is going to try and define the Democratic frontrunner for them, even before Kerry locks up the nomination. In his speech to Republican governors Monday night, the President never mentioned Kerry by name, but took some pretty good shots at "one senator from Massachusetts." Bush accused Kerry of being both for NAFTA and against NAFTA, both for and against the war in Iraq, both for and against the Patriot Act. The President's message to voters: Democrats are wusses; you may or may not agree with my policies, but you want someone with strong convictions in office if al-Qaeda strikes again. Of course, it's still nine months before election day, and Kerry has spent much of the last few weeks trying to define Bush as a tool of special interests. But if Bush succeeds in defining Kerry as well as he did in painting Al Gore as a fibbing, out-of-touch know-it-all, it will be because Kerry did not do a good job defining himself. He certainly hasn't done so yet.

Exit polls in the completed primaries show Kerry winning largely because voters think he is the most "electable" Democrat. But what does that mean? It's not going to mean anything to the wider electorate in November. Kerry needs to motivate voters with a vision of who he is and where he wants to take the country — and so far he has done little more than to say he wants to take it as far away from Bush's vision as possible.

But one reason Kerry hasn't more effectively laid out his vision is because he hasn't had to. The front-loaded primary schedule has given him a relatively easy ride since he surged ahead of an imploding Howard Dean in Iowa. Never since the parties first developed the current nomination process after the contentious 1968 election have so many states voted so quickly. Only 15 days after Iowa caucused and a week after New Hampshire voted, seven states had cast their ballots. Other candidates had little time for retail campaigning and couldn't count on the money and media attention Kerry was receiving, so they had almost no chance. Momentum trumped everything.

This express lane to the nomination was crafted by party bigwigs and state parties to favor frontrunners and avoid a divisive primary season that leaves a bloody, bruised nominee to face the President. Ironically, it initially looked like the system would favor outsider Howard Dean, who won the pre-primary season before killing his campaign with a dreadful last month before Iowa. During that month, Democrats who weren't Deaniacs took a long look at Dean and decided the party needed the candidate least like the former Vermont governor. That was Kerry.

So is Kerry winning the nomination because he's the best candidate, or because he's not Dean? Unless John Edwards gains more momentum and forces a real contest, Democrats may not know until November. The Democratic National Committee and the state parties need to learn that a long nomination contest is not a bad thing.

Their motivation was understandable: There's a guy in the Oval Office with $132 million waiting to smack down whoever emerges with the nomination. And Kerry and Edwards are spending valuable money while they duke it out.

But a long nomination fight forces the eventual winner to prove he's up to the task, that he can lay out a compelling vision to voters, take a few punches and still win. In a recent analysis of presidential contests from 1960-2000, the University of Virginia's Center for Politics found that competitive primary fights did not hurt the eventual nominee's chances of winning the presidency, as long as the primaries had not been divisive. Both Kerry and Edwards have done a good job so far of not letting things get personal, and Democrats are so united in their opposition to all things Bush it's doubtful anything could divide the party right now. In fact, the latest Pew Research Center poll, from Feb. 11-16, shows 45 percent of Americans now have a positive view of the Democratic field, compared to 31 percent in January. This battle is giving valuable attention to the Democrats after four years of looking feckless.

So let them run awhile longer. Let's see who really can win. And in 2008, the DNC and state parties should craft a less front-loaded process. It does no good if it nominates the wrong guy.