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Democratic primary not over just yet

Most analyses of the New Hampshire results miss the point. In fact, the Democratic nomination probably won’t be decided by a contest in which John Kerry beats Howard Dean and never really has to come to terms with also-rans like John Edwards and Wesley Clark.

Only the liberal wing of the Democratic Party has reached a conclusion in its designation of Kerry as their finalist for the nomination. There is still a big opening for a moderate candidate such Edwards or Clark.

Remember, the one-two finishers in New Hampshire were favorite sons from next-door states: Massachusetts’ Kerry and Vermont’s Dean. It was quite natural that they’d draw two-thirds of the votes, especially considering the amount of time each has spent in that state. But it doesn’t mean the nomination is over or that a liberal will necessarily win.

Democrats held two primaries on Tuesday in New Hampshire. In the liberal contest, Kerry bested Dean by a sufficient margin to endanger the ex- governor’s candidacy. But the moderate primary was essentially a three-way tie -Edwards and Clark at 12 percent each, with Joe Lieberman only slightly behind at 9 percent.

The race will not remain a Kerry-Dean contest, but will evolve, as it always does, into one between one liberal (likely Kerry) and one moderate.

The next round on Tuesday favors the moderates as we move south to South Carolina, Missouri, Delaware, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and North Dakota.

Media is pretty cheap in these states, so all five candidates should be able to make their presence felt, but it is the three moderates who will find this round crucial as they try to put the ambiguity of the New Hampshire result behind them and annoint a clear centrist candidate to battle Kerry in the big-state March 2 contests – New York, California, Texas and Ohio.

Iowa and New Hampshire classically weed out the field and nominate a representative from the left to battle one from the center for the nomination: In 1976, Carter emerged as the moderate and Rep. Morris Udall as the liberal. In ’84, it became Gary Hart vs. Walter Mondale; in ’88, Michael Dukakis vs. Al Gore. In 1992, Bill Clinton represented the center, Jerry Brown, the left.

But this year, Lieberman and Clark refused to enter Iowa, limiting the center’s ability to sift through the candidates and anoint a moderate to challenge the party’s left. With Dean’s early surge and Kerry’s dramatic comeback, there was little time or attention for the centrists to attract notice. Without a strong centrist candidate, and with all the attention on the Kerry-Dean drama, the New Hampshire independents and moderates were drowned out.

But even in the Democratic primaries, the Feb. 3 states are moderate to conservative. There, the centrists will weigh in and shake out the Clark-Edwards-Lieberman field.

To assume the nominating process is basically over this early is to misunderstand its nature. Until a liberal beats a moderate (or vice-versa), the primaries have a long, long way to go.

The left’s mobilization in the primaries so far, out of intense concern over the war in Iraq, has led many to ignore the Democratic Party’s vast centrist base. Especially in states where independents can vote, its impact can be big.

Now that Kerry is alone at the top as the frontrunner, he’ll start getting the bulk of the criticism and media scrutiny. As he comes to be seen as the reincarnation of Ted Kennedy and Mike Dukakis (he and Kennedy share Bob Shrum as their common media man), the center will grope for an alternative. Then the process will really get under way.

Because of the truncated nature of this year’s political calendar, it will all happen quickly. But stay tuned, it will happen.

Dick Morris was an adviser to Bill Clinton for 20 years. Look for his new book, Off With Their Heads: Traitors, Crooks, and Obstructionists in American Politics, Media and Business. Copyright 2004 Dick Morris, All Rights Reserved. Distributed by Cagle Cartoons, Inc. www.caglecartoons.com Call Cari Dawson Bartley at (800) 696 7561 or e-mail: cari@cagle.com email for Dick Morris is dmredding@aol.com

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