IN THE ANNALS of presidential primaries, the assessment of frontrunner John Kerry by his chief opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination, John Edwards, may be the kindest ever uttered. Kerry, he said, "is a friend of mine. I have great respect for him." Sure, he and Kerry have differences, Edwards said, but "he's a good man."
That comment captured the incredibly genteel nature of the Democratic race. The Al Gore versus Bill Bradley fight for the Democratic nomination in 2000 was brutal at times. So was the fight between Bill Clinton and Paul Tsongas in 1992. The 2004 contest is a picnic in comparison. Howard Dean takes swipes at Kerry, even calling him a "Republican," but he balked at tough criticism of Kerry when it would have had the largest impact, during the televised New Hampshire and South Carolina debates.
Why candidates shy away from attacking a frontrunner is anybody's guess. But the effect is clear: It benefits Kerry. He emerged from winning in Iowa and New Hampshire in January with a head of steam and nothing slowed his momentum yesterday, when he won five states at stake (Missouri, Arizona, Delaware, New Mexico, North Dakota). Edwards captured South Carolina, where he was born and reared, and Wesley Clark narrowly edged out Edwards to win the Oklahoma primary. Dean didn't campaign in the seven states.
Kerry had no incentive to say anything unkind about his opponents. Absent an egregious mistake or gaffe, Kerry will continue to cruise to the nomination and run against President Bush. Edwards is hostage to his tactic, adopted weeks ago, to campaign as the positive Democratic candidate. As Ronald Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times has noted, this decision was made weeks ago when Edwards was hoping to emerge as the chief challenger to Dean, then the frontrunner. Now, with Kerry in the lead, Edwards may regret the decision. If he drew attention in speeches and TV ads to any Kerry's vulnerabilities, Edwards might be able to stem the Kerry surge.
As things stand, Kerry is being extraordinarily well received, even by Democrats who voted for other candidates in the primaries. Exit polls in five states yesterday found that roughly 80 percent of Democratic voters would be quite satisfied with Kerry as the nominee. Edwards also has made a good impression. In New Hampshire, he got only 12 percent of the vote but 73 percent of Democrats responded favorably to him.
Luck has come to Kerry's aid as well. Had Edwards won the Oklahoma primary as well as South Carolina's, the press would no doubt have anointed by the press as a full-blown challenger to Kerry in a two-man race. But Clark's victory in Oklahoma nixed that. Now, Kerry faces three opponents--Edwards, Dean, and Clark--none of whom is a serious threat.
The primary schedule may also aid Kerry. He could face a stiff challenge from Edwards in two Southern states, Virginia and Tennessee, next Tuesday. Ed Turlington, Edwards's campaign manager, calls these "states of opportunity." But before then, Kerry is the favorite to win in Michigan and Washington on Saturday. Meanwhile, Kerry has piled up a strong lead in the delegate count.
At the moment, the Democratic campaign looks like the 1976 presidential nomination race. Jimmy Carter won in Iowa and New Hampshire and proceeded methodically to the nomination. Jerry Brown won a few primaries, but Carter's ultimate success in capturing the nomination was never in serious doubt. Neither is Kerry's.