31 JANUARY 2004, Page 27

How 'None of the Above' won

Mark Steyn says that New Hampshire picked the uninspiring John Kerry because he was the least unelectable of the contenders

New Hampshire

1 love New Hampshire!' I forget which candidate opened his Tuesday night speech with that line. Oh, hang on. they all did. Except Joe Lieberman, the ever optimistic Yiddisher pixie, who beamed at the crowd and said: Is New Hampshire a great state or what?'

Senator Lieberman, the only unabashedly pro-war Democrat on the ballot, had been claiming at every campaign stop for the last week to have something called 'Joe-mentum', which is like 'momentum', but apparently much smaller, if not entirely undetectable. Nonetheless, running into him in the final hours, I caught the Joe-mentum fever and rashly predicted he'd run his numbers up into double figures. The Connecticut Senator and former vice-presidential candidate was, after all, the only candidate in the field so eager to win New Hampshire that he rented an apartment in Manchester and moved here. John Kelly and Howard Dean were said to have the advantage of being from neighbouring states, but Lieberman had the advantage of being from a neighbouring neighbourhood. Frankly, the least we Granite Staters could do was bump him up to a lousy 10 per cent. Alas, this proved to be a gross Joe-verestimate. In the end, Senator Lieberman managed 9 per cent, but nevertheless turned in a remarkable impression of Sally Field. He'd confounded all the naysayers, who had him down at 7 per cent.

The national pundits didn't expect this, did they?' roared a gleeful Joe, claiming a great victory — or, as he put it, We are in a three-way split decision for third place!' He hadn't come in the Top Three, but he'd come in the Top Three for third place. Just about. If I were General Wesley Clark and Senator John Edwards, who both got 12 per cent and were, in fact, in a two-way split decision for third place, I'd resent some single-digit loser like Lieberman trying to muscle in. He's going Joe-where, he's headed for Joe-blivion.

He's not the only one. Any way you slice it. John Kerry had a very good night. And I had a very bad night. A couple of months back, when Senator Kerry was in the basement, going down and headed for a victory of Lieberman-like proportions, I announced a competition on my website: predict the percentage of votes Kerry would get in New Hampshire and you'd win that number of copies of my book. I figured he'll be down to 6 per cent, I'll give away six books. The bugger got 39 per cent. That's 800 bucks' worth of merchandise I'm giving away.

Oh well. At least I can admit I'm a loser. On Tuesday night, the other players refused to concede the Joe-plessness of their situation, even though Kerry had not just won, he'd managed to weaken all his rivals.

General Wesley Clark hailed his spectacular triumph — of getting 12 per cent — when he'd only got into the race four months ago. This is true. Nor did he need to rent an apartment. But four months ago a CNN poll showed him beating Bush 49 per cent to 46 per cent, and in the end he could barely find 12 per cent of Democrats willing to vote for him. New Hampshire is said to have more veterans per capita than any other state. Kerry campaigned with veterans at every stop. Clark campaigned with the support of Michael Moore, the corpulent conspirazoid; George McGovern, who rivals Walter Mondale as the Greatest Living Democratic Party Loser; and Madonna, the well-known resident of the United Kingdom. September's white knight had shrivelled away to the candidate of the carny-folk Left. He was supposed to be the sane alternative to Dean: instead, Kerry snaffled that role, and left Clark to frolic on the grassy knoll as the crazy alternative to Dean.

My man John Edwards, the pretty-boy trial lawyer with the fabulous bangs and a lovely layered nape (I've seen a lot of his neck this primary season), hailed his spectacular triumph of tying with General Clark, when only a week earlier General Clark had had double his numbers in the polls. This is true. But Senator Edwards didn't catch up with General Clark. Instead, General Clark dwindled down to Senator Edwards — and it's hard to see how the Senator can take credit for that. More importantly, coming out of Iowa a week earlier as a strong second to Kerry with 32 per cent of the vote, Edwards should have had a real bounce. Instead, he flopped, ending not with his fabulous bangs but with a whimper. I saw him up in the mountains on Saturday, when he brought his 'positive message' to Gorham Town Hall. 'This election is about the future of the country,' he said. Howard Dean and John Kerry and Wes Clark also say it, but Edwards says it better: Dean says it angrily, and Kerry says it groggily, as if he's in danger of falling asleep midway through the sentiment, and Clark says it tetchily, usually in response as to why he's claiming he's always been against the war when in the Times of London last April he gave the full Monica to Bush and Blair for their tremendous military victory.

So give Senator Edwards credit: he can pull off this platitude better than his rivals. But all his issues are weird trial-lawyer obsessions — you should have the right to sue your health insurer; credit card companies and mortgage lenders should have to explain their interest rates in bigger print. He sounds like he's auditioning next year's class action suits. If he was the nominee and there was another chad-dangling stand-off, I'd bet on Edwards to represent himself and sue his way into the White House.

Otherwise, the pretty boy is relentlessly positive — as he says, 'If you're looking for the best candidate to attack the other Democrats, I'm not your guy,' which is itself a not so subtle attack on the other candidates. But eventually the condescension grinds you down. Even Democrats, even in a brokendown North Country mill town, don't want to be told they're helpless children who can't function in the world without Edwards swaddling them in a cocoon of government regulations. And, after a while, you begin to notice that while he's got policies to address the fine print on your MasterCard statement, he's got nothing to say about the great issues of the day, aside from taking action to prevent 'war profiteering' by Bush cronies. In the crush as he was leaving, I asked him what he would do about Iraq.

'We need to get the UN in there,' he said.

But they were in there. They pulled out because it was too dangerous.'

'We need to get Nato in there,' he said.

'But 21 out of the 34 countries with troops on the ground are, in fact, Nato members.'

'Hey, that's what I love about these town hall meetings,' he said, shaking my hand. 'You get to hear from the people.' If Edwards were in a presidential debate with Bush, there wouldn't be a lot of questions on Visa card rates but there would be one or two on Iraq, and his platitudes wouldn't pass muster.

Howard Dean? Oh, he hailed his spectacular triumph. too. And he might have got away with it, had he lost by a point or two (as I predicted) or held Kerry under 30 per cent, or 35 per cent, or from a double-digit lead. But a partial recovery in a state that represented Dean's best shot at an early victory isn't enough to make him the Comeback Kid. I thought he put it very well in this week's Concession Speech of the Week. 'We can have jobs again in America. And we will.'

And he will. Howard Dean will have a job again in America. It won't be President of the United States. But there's no reason why he couldn't be a spokesperson for Ben & Jerry's premium Vermont ice cream, perhaps dressed up as a Holstein in the late stages of BSE. CI scream for ice cream. And you will, too.')

That leaves John Kerry, the tall, gaunt, dozy Massachusetts blueblood I'd written off ever since last summer when he came to the Barge Inn in Woodsville and, in the strangest political entrance I've ever seen, walked through the door to cheers and flags and popping cameras and worked his way through the crowd pressing the flesh until he got to the men's room, whereupon he went in, leaving the clapping and waving to just sort of peter out as we waited for him to emerge. One reason why I couldn't bring myself to believe in the alleged Kerry surge of last week is that, while one meets plenty of Dems hot for Dean and a few who admire Lieberman and some kooky types who dig Clark, I've yet to meet anyone who really likes Kerry. According to the exit polls, the Ketchup Kid won because Democrats were looking for someone with `electability'. What this means is they settled on Kerry because he has less obvious unelectability than Dean (too angry), Lieberman (too Joe-ish), Clark (too freaky) and Edwards (too unknown). As I said here months ago, this was a race to find 'None of the Above', and the trick was always to position everybody else as 'The Above' and you as the 'None'. On Tuesday, Kerry pulled that off.

And he's certainly the ultimate 'None'. Last summer, he was terrible on the stump. Six months later, he's still terrible, but the difference is he's now terrible with a full supporting cast. Back in Woodsville, while he was in the men's room, we had to twiddle our thumbs. By the time of his final appearances in southern New Hampshire, he could have been in the men's room for three quarters of the evening and you'd never have known it. Traditionally, a candidate gets introduced by some local supporter — a state representative or some such — and then gets on with it. Kerry has introducers to introduce his introducers. Bill Shaheen comes on and introduces his wife, former governor Jeanne Shaheen. And then Jeanne introduces Patrick Kennedy, and Patrick introduces Ted Kennedy, and Ted introduces former Senator Max Cleland, and Cleland introduces his fellow veterans. And pretty soon it's like ABC's 80th birthday salute to Frank Sinatra where Bob Dylan and Natalie Cole and Bruce Springsteen and Tony Bennett came on and paid tribute to Frank and at the end he got up on stage and sang the last two notes of 'New York, New York'. And, when Kerry does eventually get to the microphone, he can't even do the last two notes well. The speech is the usual patrician-populist boilerplate, concluding with a message to the 'powerful interests', 'influence peddlers' and 'Big Oil' who currently own the White House: 'We're coming. You're going. And don't let the door hit you on the way out.' He says this at every stop. And they say Howard Dean isn't presidential! But Dean could at least put a bit of attitude into that line. Kerry can't. The campaign seems to have calculated that, if they can just lose him in the crowd scenes, he'll be the nominee before anyone figures out how plonking he is.

Meanwhile, Kerry's wife Theresa Heinz. the Big Ketchup heiress and representative of powerful condiment interests, stands by his side, looking either bored or embarrassed. At the singalong bits — the 'don't let the door' line — she half-heartedly mouths every third or fourth word. She was game enough to host a rally at the Littleton Diner for her husband. 'Did she refill the bottles?' I asked the waitress. 'I don't think she uses a lot of ketchup,' she said. But her husband has 57 varieties of his position on Iraq, and Democratic voters seem to have figured that one or other of them is likely to be more politically viable than Dean's.

Traditionally, the role of the New Hampshire electorate is to rattle the frontrunner and thereby make him a better candidate, as they did with Bush in 2000. But this time round the candidates seem to have rattled the electorate. Kerry is this year's Bob Dole — the guy you make do with. It's summed up by one of the Senator's campaign buttons: 'Dated Dean, Married Kerry' — i.e., sure, Dean's great for a few drinks and a couple of wild parties, but when you want to settle down for keeps you go with a solid citizen like Kerry.

Well, maybe. But I'll bet on Wednesday morning more than a few of those voters who 'married Kerry' woke up feeling like Britney Spears. If Kerry clobbers Edwards in South Carolina next week, there's no way to annul.