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Published: Tuesday, 3/2/2004

The iron laws of politics have been scrapped

FOR years, the American political process was governed by iron laws. Master them, and you mastered the process - understanding what is going on if you were a commentator, controlling what is going on if you were a candidate or handler. But, like so much in the modern age, that's no longer the case. In the simple passage of a month, the iron laws of American politics have been repealed.

In that time, a front-runner has been toppled, a new one has been crowned, a president's invulnerability has been shaken, the Internet's power in politics has been asserted and then questioned, and the judgment of just about everybody has been proven wrong. It doesn't get much better than this.

So at the end of a frantic period in the political season, let's pause for a moment to note the death of these iron laws that, only a month ago, seemed to offer so much comfort and guidance:

There are no survivors in Democratic nomination politics. The Democrats love a fight, especially when it's with each other. That's what we used to believe.

Not this time. This has been a spirited nomination struggle, but not the death struggle of other election years. Indeed, despite their differences on trade, the battle between Sen. John F. Kerry and Sen. John Edwards seems eerily congenial, and perhaps not very prolonged, in part because both principals are beginning to see the virtue of ending up with a Kerry-Edwards ticket.

The best way to lose the New Hampshire primary is to win the Iowa caucuses. Here are some recent winners of Iowa and losers of New Hampshire: Walter F. Mondale, Richard A. Gephardt, George H.W. Bush, Tom Harkin, Bob Dole, and George W. Bush. In the old days, New Hampshire, so isolated from the rest of the country, so willing to buck national sentiment, prided itself on going its own way, which helps explain why Patrick J. Buchanan was able to win the Republican primary eight years ago. No longer.

This year New Hampshire voters affirmed Iowa's choice, proving that the triumph of Al Gore in both contests four years ago was no fluke.

You can't redefine yourself as a candidate in the middle of a campaign. This was supposed to be an especially different challenge in a front-loaded cam<0x00AD>paign like this one, designed to produce a swift conclusion. But Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards both managed to do it. Mr. Kerry, who has the whiff of the Boston Brahmin to him and who married a wealthy widow, nonetheless campaigned as a populist opponent to special interests, transforming himself from George Apley, Jr., into William Jennings Bryan in an instant's time. Mr. Edwards began the campaign as a callow pretender - this year's pretty face - and ended up as a serious contender for national office.

The worst way to end up as a serious contender for the bottom half of the national ticket is to be a serious contender for the top half of the ticket. In the modern age, only twice - when John F. Kennedy selected Lyndon B. Johnson in 1960 and when Ronald Reagan chose Bush the elder in 1980 - has a running-mate come from the ranks of the defeated presidential candidates. Richard M. Nixon, Henry Cabot Lodge, Edmund S. Muskie, Lloyd Bentsen, Jr., Thomas Eagle<0x00AD>ton, Albert Gore, Jr., Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney, and, of course, William Miller were all surprise selections as vice-presidential candidates. This year, Mr. Edwards is a natural choice should Mr. Kerry prevail; he might bring North Carolina, with its ailing economy and its 15 electoral votes, into the Democratic fold.

American elections are about the economy, not about foreign policy. Ordinarily that's true, and though 1968 sometimes stands out as an exception, that election was mostly about law and order, since the positions of Richard Nixon and Hubert H. Humphrey on Vietnam were obscured by the secret peace plan of the one and the awkward position, as vice president to a war president, of the other. Foreign policy has been an important theme of this election so far, and by positioning himself as a war president, Mr. Bush is ensuring that it will remain that way.

The candidate with the most money and the best poll results in the period before the caucuses and primaries gets the nomination. This was a favorite theory of lots of commentators and political scientists. (If you thought you read that one in this space a few months ago, your memory is not playing tricks on you.) But the demise of former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont brought a spectacular end to the theory of the so-called "invisible primary." It reminds us, too, of another iron law of politics, one that, unlike the others, is not subject to revisionism: It's the voters, not the reporters or the fund-raisers, who are the most important part of this process.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail: dshribman@post-gazette.com



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