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Published: Sunday, 2/1/2004

Campaign a wild ride for Michigan Democrats

DETROIT - The day after the Iowa caucuses, Michigan Democrats were as deeply confused as I've ever seen them over their choice of a presidential nominee.

The day after New Hampshire, it seemed highly likely that, barring a jolt nobody can foresee, that John Kerry would go on to a solid victory in the state's caucuses Saturday.

But the week between was wild. Much of the political establishment (including, secretly, Gov. Jennifer Granholm) had jumped on the Kerry bandwagon early - then teetered, appalled, as the Massachusetts senator's campaign sagged all last year.

Since summer, Howard Dean had been the favorite among college students, those who spend too much time online, and the subgroup known as "Ann Arbor liberals."

But by New Year's Day, it looked at though his campaign had a certain inevitability. Marie Donigan, a city councilman in suburban Royal Oak, was chosen to cast the first-ever Internet caucus vote, and cast it for Mr. Dean.

Organized labor, burned by premature endorsements in the past, had declined to formally designate a choice, but it was no secret that many, perhaps most, still carried a torch for Dick Gephardt of Missouri, long their champion.

African-Americans, a third of cau<0x00AD>cus voters, were curiously unsettled. One of the state's two black congressmen, Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick, mother of Detroit's mayor, had surprisingly endorsed Mr. Dean. But John Conyers, dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, was on the fence.

"These guys from New England - we can't win with them," he told me last year, indicating he was interested in U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

Then, suddenly, Mr. Kerry's campaign in Iowa took off, spurred by the dramatic appearance of a Vietnam veteran whose life was saved by the future politician when both were soldiers once, and young. There began to be a sense Mr. Dean might not be quite ready for prime time, which accelerated with reports that his wife wouldn't serve as First Lady and would instead stay in Vermont and practice medicine.

The day after Iowa, Michigan Democrats woke up to discover Mr. Gephardt was withdrawing, Mr. Edwards had come out of nowhere to finish a surprisingly strong second, and that Mr. Dean had not only come in a bad third, he had startled the nation with his "I have a scream" concession speech.

"Now I wish I had voted for Edwards," Ms. Donigan sighed. Mark Gaffney, president of the state AFL-CIO, said that he, too, was switching to Mr. Edwards, but wasn't suggesting to the rank-and-file what they should do.

Yet the New Hampshire primary, which often has given the nation quixotic results (recent winners include Pat Buchanan, Ed Muskie, Paul Tsongas; you get the idea) seemed to clear people's heads. Mr. Kerry and Mr. Dean both come from bordering states, but Mr. Kerry crushed Mr. Dean by a 3-2 margin in a huge turnout.

Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman had pinned all their hopes on New Hampshire, and both were squished. Mr. Edwards, who devoted little time to the state, scored 12 percent, about the same as Mr. Clark, but a big comedown from his 32 percent in Iowa.

Suddenly it seemed to be Mr. Kerry's game to lose, and he had the football. Early polls had shown Mr. Dean with a big lead in Michigan, but the day before New Hampshire, the respected EPIC/MRA showed Mr. Kerry with 37 percent, statistically identical to his 38 percent in Iowa and 39 percent in New Hampshire.

Nobody else was close. Mr. Dean and Mr. Edwards were at 14 percent, and everyone else was in the low single digits. Suddenly money was flowing into the Kerry campaign, and the flood of Internet contributions that put Mr. Dean on the map were said to be drying up. Mr. Dean got a new campaign manager, tried to remake his image, and was doing all the things a presidential campaign does when it gets into trouble. The very things, as a matter of fact, the Kerry campaign was doing two months ago.

Naturally, the other candidates say it is still early. But it really isn't. Washington state votes the same day as Michigan. Then eight more states vote before March 2, the mother of all primaries. That day, 10 states vote, most of them large, including California, New York, and Ohio.

When that night ends, the contest ought to be essentially over. Here's what the smart money was saying last week: The ticket is all but certain to be Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards, and they are going to give George Bush the fight of his life.

To be sure, the same smart money was on Mr. Dean and a Bush landslide at Christmas. One thing can't be denied, however. If a Democratic candidate holds all the states Al Gore won last time and adds North Carolina, President Bush loses.

That may not happen, and it is a long way from January to November, or even the summer conventions. But for Democrats, both seem a lot closer than just a week ago.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan. E-mail: omblade@aol.com



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