TCS Daily

Shooting the Wounded

By John Ellis - January 27, 2004 12:00 AM

The turning point of the 1988 Republican presidential nomination campaign came just after the New Hampshire primary, where then-Vice President George H.W. Bush had bounced back from a humiliating third-place finish in Iowa to defeat Sen. Bob Dole by 9 percentage points. In the days that followed, a debate raged within the Bush campaign about how to allocate its remaining resources. Campaign strategist Lee Atwater argued that the only thing to do was dump everything into South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states that followed three days later. "Shoot the wounded," said Atwater at the time, "that's my view."

Atwater's view prevailed. The Bush campaign buried South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states under an avalanche of money, organizational muscle, surrogates and media advertisements. When the votes were counted, Bush had run the table, sweeping all but the states of Washington and Missouri, and the race was over.

Something like that moment exists right now for Senator John Kerry. He has his rivals on the killing floor. Governor Dean, after two defeats in two states ready-made for his candidacy, is finished. General Wesley Clark, whose candidacy was conceived to provide Democrats with an anti-Dean, has been rendered meaningless. Senator Joe Lieberman is done; you can't raise money when you run out of the money. Senator Edwards remains, but diminished by New Hampshire. Iowa's Big Mo has been replaced by the nagging sense that the youthful senator is not yet ready for the Big Show.

So the question is: will Senator Kerry pull the trigger?

Let's be blunt about John Forbes Kerry; he's a cold fish and coldly calculating as well. Former Massachusetts State Senate President William Bulger (D) once said that the initials "JFK" stood for "Just for Kerry." Bulger's view is widely shared at the national level. In Massachusetts, Kerry fans are hard to find. To know him is not to love him. And the more you know him, the more you understand why.

More important, Kerry is not a constituency politician. He's self-created and actualized. There is no safety net beneath him, as there was for Reagan when he faltered in Iowa, as there was for Mondale when he lost New Hampshire, as there was for George W. Bush when he lost New Hampshire four years ago. Kerry has a base, but it's psychographic, not demographic. If he begins to slide, aging yuppies will not be the only ones to cut him loose.

So he needs to be the winner, because everybody loves a winner. And in order to be the winner, he has to make sure that no one else wins. And that is why the decisions he makes today will largely determine whether or not he leverages his success in Iowa and New Hampshire into becoming the Democratic presidential nominee, or whether he lets his remaining rival, Senator Edwards, back up off the floor.

Strategically, Kerry has to throw every dollar, every organizer, every surrogate and all of his paid media at South Carolina, Oklahoma, Missouri and (to a lesser extent) the others. He has to shoot the wounded everywhere they twitch. If he does, then it will be over next Tuesday night. If he doesn't, then the game goes on. The longer it goes, the better it is for Sen. Edwards.

"This isn't complicated," Lee Atwater said to me years ago, talking about the Bush-Dole fight in South Carolina. "When you got 'em by the throat, you take out a damn howitzer and blow their brains out."


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