Kerry cruises toward 'Super Tuesday'

Just for a moment, as the students of the University of Southern California gathered to show their partisan colours outside the last Democratic presidential candidates' debate of the primary season, you could almost believe there was a real race still to run.

The Kerry crowd, including a clutch of grocery union workers and several dozen energetic undergraduates, waved "Anybody But Bush" placards and chanted upbeat slogans. The Edwards contingent, smarter, older and more conservative-looking, swayed under a "Johnny Be Good" banner. Supporters of Dennis Kucinich danced to rap music, staged mini-agitprop shows with masks and papier-mache props and generally disdained everyone else as sell-outs.

Even Howard Dean, who dropped out of the race a week ago, had his diehard fans determined to vote for him anyway, arguing with the Edwards people about the best way to halt John Kerry's momentum and mouthing resentful couplets aimed at the frontrunner ("Howard defined the message – Kerry stole it!").

In reality, though, next week's Super Tuesday spread of races is no contest at all. Mr Kerry was more than 40 points ahead of Mr Edwards in California according to one poll this week, and his lead looks equally unassailable in New York and Ohio.

The California campaigners could be forgiven for being caught out by the sheer speed of events – just a month ago, Mr Kerry was polling at seven per cent in California, and Mr Edwards at three per cent, with Mr Dean effortlessly leading the pack. Or perhaps they were simply frustrated that their disparate voices, here in the most populous state in the union, never got a proper hearing until the race was as good as over.

Thursday night's debate was, in effect, Mr Edwards's last stand. With too much ground to cover to do what he is best at – campaigning up close with groups of a few hundred – he could hope only to outshine Mr Kerry so definitively before the panel of CNN and Los Angeles Times journalists that voters watching on television would feel compelled to switch their loyalties to him.

He almost certainly failed in that attempt. He and Mr Kerry were so unfailingly polite to each other that both had trouble defining clear differences. Mr Kerry exuded gravitas, as he always does, even at the risk of looking like he might sink like a stone at any moment. Mr Edwards was lighter on his feet, as he habitually is, at the risk of sounding superficial and underprepared, especially on issues of foreign and security policy.

Tellingly, one of the biggest laughs of the night came when, on the subject of Haiti, Mr Kerry suggested, ever so gingerly: "I disagree with John, a little bit?" It never got more contentious than that.

With the Democratic nomination all but settled, the greater danger for both men – they may well end up together on the ticket -- was that they would be made to seem inconsistent or even hypocritical on a number of key issues.

Both voted for the war in Iraq, but now oppose it; both voted for the cornerstone of President Bush's education policy, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, but now oppose it; and both voted for the Patriot Act, which greatly increased the powers of law enforcement at the expense of civil liberties, but now oppose it. The two also-rans invited into the debate, Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich, pushed home this point at every opportunity.

On Iraq, Mr Edwards came badly unstuck as he sought to justify his changing position. When he said President Bush had not conducted the war the way he had expected, the moderator, Larry King, asked: "So you mean to say you were suckered?" When asked whether he regretted his vote on Iraq, he said several times: "I did what I believed was right at the time." But he did not give a straight yes or no answer.

Mr Kerry fared slightly better, arguing that his vote in October 2002 was for three specific commitments that President Bush failed to keep – on building a broad coalition, on deferring to United Nations weapons inspectors, and on using war as a last resort. But he too had trouble ducking the "flip-flop" charges. (One Dean supporter even showed up to the event as a giant beach flip-flop; her fliers depicted cans of "Bush Lite" beer with Mr Kerry's face stamped on each one.)

Having gone into the debate open to embarrassment on the wedge issue of the moment, gay marriage – and indeed he gave a thoroughly confusing answer on his precise stance – he ended up looking vaguely embarrassed on just about everything.

"I'm not going to listen to President Bush saying I have two positions on every issue, when he has a wrong position on every issue," Mr Kerry argued. The line sounded forceful as he uttered it, but its logic was perplexing, to say the least, suggesting he would rather hedge on any given issue than risk being mistaken. In American political culture, that's simply not how presidents are supposed to be.

An audience of USC students following the debate in the auditorium basement laughed at Mr Kerry at this and many other junctures. Not a promising sign.

One Edwards supporter, an environmental science student called Shannon Callahan, contemplated a Kerry candidacy and feared for what she saw. "People are so caught up with the anybody-but-Bush mantra that they don't realise what they are letting themselves in for," she said. And her face grew genuinely pained as she added: "I just don't think Kerry can do it."

Just for a moment, as the students of the University of Southern California gathered to show their partisan colours outside the last Democratic presidential candidates' debate of the primary season, you could almost believe there was a real race still to run.

The Kerry crowd, including a clutch of grocery union workers and several dozen energetic undergraduates, waved "Anybody But Bush" placards and chanted upbeat slogans. The Edwards contingent, smarter, older and more conservative-looking, swayed under a "Johnny Be Good" banner. Supporters of Dennis Kucinich danced to rap music, staged mini-agitprop shows with masks and papier-mache props and generally disdained everyone else as sell-outs.

Even Howard Dean, who dropped out of the race a week ago, had his diehard fans determined to vote for him anyway, arguing with the Edwards people about the best way to halt John Kerry's momentum and mouthing resentful couplets aimed at the frontrunner ("Howard defined the message – Kerry stole it!").

In reality, though, next week's Super Tuesday spread of races is no contest at all. Mr Kerry was more than 40 points ahead of Mr Edwards in California according to one poll this week, and his lead looks equally unassailable in New York and Ohio.

The California campaigners could be forgiven for being caught out by the sheer speed of events – just a month ago, Mr Kerry was polling at seven per cent in California, and Mr Edwards at three per cent, with Mr Dean effortlessly leading the pack. Or perhaps they were simply frustrated that their disparate voices, here in the most populous state in the union, never got a proper hearing until the race was as good as over.

Thursday night's debate was, in effect, Mr Edwards's last stand. With too much ground to cover to do what he is best at – campaigning up close with groups of a few hundred – he could hope only to outshine Mr Kerry so definitively before the panel of CNN and Los Angeles Times journalists that voters watching on television would feel compelled to switch their loyalties to him.

He almost certainly failed in that attempt. He and Mr Kerry were so unfailingly polite to each other that both had trouble defining clear differences. Mr Kerry exuded gravitas, as he always does, even at the risk of looking like he might sink like a stone at any moment. Mr Edwards was lighter on his feet, as he habitually is, at the risk of sounding superficial and underprepared, especially on issues of foreign and security policy.

Tellingly, one of the biggest laughs of the night came when, on the subject of Haiti, Mr Kerry suggested, ever so gingerly: "I disagree with John, a little bit?" It never got more contentious than that.

With the Democratic nomination all but settled, the greater danger for both men – they may well end up together on the ticket -- was that they would be made to seem inconsistent or even hypocritical on a number of key issues.

Both voted for the war in Iraq, but now oppose it; both voted for the cornerstone of President Bush's education policy, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, but now oppose it; and both voted for the Patriot Act, which greatly increased the powers of law enforcement at the expense of civil liberties, but now oppose it. The two also-rans invited into the debate, Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich, pushed home this point at every opportunity.

On Iraq, Mr Edwards came badly unstuck as he sought to justify his changing position. When he said President Bush had not conducted the war the way he had expected, the moderator, Larry King, asked: "So you mean to say you were suckered?" When asked whether he regretted his vote on Iraq, he said several times: "I did what I believed was right at the time." But he did not give a straight yes or no answer.

Mr Kerry fared slightly better, arguing that his vote in October 2002 was for three specific commitments that President Bush failed to keep – on building a broad coalition, on deferring to United Nations weapons inspectors, and on using war as a last resort. But he too had trouble ducking the "flip-flop" charges. (One Dean supporter even showed up to the event as a giant beach flip-flop; her fliers depicted cans of "Bush Lite" beer with Mr Kerry's face stamped on each one.)

Having gone into the debate open to embarrassment on the wedge issue of the moment, gay marriage – and indeed he gave a thoroughly confusing answer on his precise stance – he ended up looking vaguely embarrassed on just about everything.

"I'm not going to listen to President Bush saying I have two positions on every issue, when he has a wrong position on every issue," Mr Kerry argued. The line sounded forceful as he uttered it, but its logic was perplexing, to say the least, suggesting he would rather hedge on any given issue than risk being mistaken. In American political culture, that's simply not how presidents are supposed to be.

An audience of USC students following the debate in the auditorium basement laughed at Mr Kerry at this and many other junctures. Not a promising sign.

One Edwards supporter, an environmental science student called Shannon Callahan, contemplated a Kerry candidacy and feared for what she saw. "People are so caught up with the anybody-but-Bush mantra that they don't realise what they are letting themselves in for," she said. And her face grew genuinely pained as she added: "I just don't think Kerry can do it."

Comments