Here are a few ways a columnist might begin an explanation of what transpired yesterday in the remote mountain hamlets, old mill towns, prim country towns, and burgeoning subdivisions of New Hampshire:
Sen. John F. Kerry's victory firmly established the Massachusetts senator as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, consigning former Gov. Howard B. Dean to a second-place role that, unless he scores a breakthrough soon, he likely will play as long as he remains in the race.
Gov. Howard B. Dean struggled back into contention in the Democratic presidential race yesterday, establishing himself as a nimble comeback artist after a disappointing performance in Iowa, regaining the momentum and positioning himself, like Gov. Bill Clinton a dozen years ago, to use a second-place finish in New Hampshire to catapult to the nomination.
Sen. John Edwards and retired Gen. Wesley L. Clark continued their transformations from afterthoughts to contenders yesterday. The caprices of the calendar put Mr. Edwards in particular in a strong position to emerge as a serious contender as the political battle shifts this morning to his native state of South Carolina.
The best choice, of course, is all of the above, or at least elements of them all. There's something poetic to that, for, above all, this has become an all-of-the-above kind of political season.
Some progressions of politics from Iowa to New Hampshire leave the public with a simple binary choice: Walter F. Mondale vs. Gary W. Hart in 1984, or George H.W. Bush vs. Robert J. Dole in 1988, or Paul E. Tsongas vs. Bill Clinton in 1992, or George W. Bush vs. John S. McCain in 2000. It's possible to see the 2004 campaign that way, as a struggle between Mr. Kerry, winner of two contests, and Mr. Dean, winner of none. But there are several reasons why that may be premature - and why the contest hasn't yet shaken down to two major contenders.
Mr. Kerry has the real momentum - all the better if he streaks to the nomination, all the worse if he somehow is stopped. He has barely stepped in the state of South Carolina, one of the principal states in next week's contests, and if he was tolerated or cheered at Keene State, Dartmouth, and the University of New Hampshire, he faces an entirely different set of audiences at Furman, Clemson, and Bob Jones University; his fellow Vietnam veteran John McCain, victim of an ambush at Bob Jones in 2000, can tell him that. Mr. Kerry counts on support from all the retired veterans in the state, but one of the reasons they retired in South Carolina was to get away from the big taxers and social engineers in places like Massachusetts. Remember: Mr. McCain thought veterans would bail him out, too. They split their vote between Mr. McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Hanoi, and Mr. Bush, who did not serve in Vietnam.
Mr. Dean has survived but not thrived. It is true, as he likes to remind audiences, that a year ago, when he was regarded as only a little more serious a contender than Dennis J. Kucinich, he would have regarded third place in Iowa and second in New Hampshire as heaven. It is also true, as he never says, that a month ago, when GOP opposition specialists were so convinced he would be the nominee that they actually commenced their general-election research on his record, that same verdict would have seemed disastrous. At best he can say that he hasn't been voted off the Democratic island. But South Carolina, New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, and North Dakota - where many of the Democrats are to the right of Joseph I. Lieberman - are far from ideal territory for him.
Now to Mr. Edwards. Without a convincing victory in South Carolina, his yearlong (excellent) adventure in national politics will take on the look of a very compelling campaign for the vice presidency. If he loses in South Carolina, his case for the vice presidency, to say nothing of the top job, will diminish precipitously. He can say, with a straight face, that these are his people. If they reject him, the rest of the nation will, too.
What does all this mean?
The voters in Iowa and New Hampshire were saying that they would rather beat Mr. Bush than score debate points with him on Iraq and domestic issues. Half of the state's voters, according to exit polls, said they were "angry" with the President. Some 85 percent said they were worried about the economy's direction.
By giving the victory to a politician with conventional experience but an unexciting style, these voters were implicitly indicating that they believe the President is vulnerable in November.
By keeping Mr. Dean in the race and not dispatching him to a rusticated retirement on Lake Champlain, they were indicating that they will not prevail over Mr. Bush without attracting new blocs of voters into the Democratic tent.
By keeping Mr. Clark in the race, they were acknowledging their need for a strong voice on military and foreign-policy questions.
And by keeping Mr. Edwards' hopes alive, they indicated they wanted to keep their own hopes - as personified in Mr. Edwards' sunny optimism - alive as well. Democrats don't want to make the mistake they have committed in the past of transforming an election from a campaign marathon into a dreary moan-a-thon.
Now the Democrats, more experienced on the trail, more confident of their message, more encouraged about their prospects, are going to South Carolina, where the climate is more felicitous. But it and the other Feb. 3 states are also where the campaigning is less intimate and the pace more frantic - more, in short, like the general election they want to conduct against Mr. Bush in the fall.
David M. Shribman is exe<0x00AD>cutive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail: dshrib<0x00AD>email@example.com