It's the Independence Day parade in Amherst, N.H., and John Forbes Kerry, the elegant Senator from Massachusetts, is wearing a button-down, long-sleeve tattersall shirt, khaki pants and topsiders. He is surrounded by about 100 supporters, many of them young people toting signs. There is a Kerry truck blaring music. "It doesn't get much better than this," he says, a statement meant to convey enthusiasm but which comes off as Kerry's awkward guess at what a politician ought to be saying in such circumstances.
Other candidates--Joe Lieberman, Bob Graham--are in the parade, but you would hardly know it. This event is mano a mano: Kerry vs. Dr. Howard Dean, the former Governor of Vermont. Dean has about the same number of supporters as Kerry--but they're younger, more enthusiastic and much more creative. Some are wearing white doctors' coats, brandishing stethoscopes and passing out tongue depressors with the words "Rx for America: Howard Dean." The Governor, however, seems unprepared for parading. He's wearing navy pinstripe suit pants, a blue business shirt and his perennial black penny loafers. When we shake hands, he blurts the first thing that comes to mind: "It's good we're not right behind the horses. That always happens in Vermont--it's a message, I guess. You have to watch your step, which is a pain because you want eye contact with the people." When the parade begins, Dean takes off--running, and I mean sprinting--from clump to clump of parade watchers. His face grows red; he sweats; people hand him Dixie cups of water as if he were in a marathon. John Kerry, by contrast, occasionally breaks into a stately jog, from one side of the street to the other.
Beware of parade metaphors. And yet...Kerry jogging artfully, Dean running artlessly--that's pretty much where the race stands in New Hampshire these days. There are other candidates and other states. Congressman Dick Gephardt has support in Iowa and could easily win the nomination, especially if Kerry and Dean murder each other over the same subset of white, well-educated voters. And so Kerry vs. Dean has become the preliminary bout before the Democrats' main event. It is a struggle that revolves around a single issue that mixes style and substance. The issue is Iraq. The style question is, How angry should Democrats be about what George W. Bush has done there?
Dean is winning on both counts. His opposition to the war is looking less radical every day. His style--his imprudence, his plain talk--just doesn't sound like the other guys. At the Dems' winter meeting in Washington, he arrived at the podium and, instead of lapsing into the usual thank-you blather, blasted off like a rocket-propelled grenade: "What I want to know is why so many Democrats in Washington aren't standing up against Bush's unilateral war in Iraq." This was followed by several more withering "What I want to knows" and then the introduction: "My name is Howard Dean, and I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." The crowd went nuts.