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Campaign journal: Kerry leads the Democratic field

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The will to win is a strong wind at any candidate's back. Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry, frontrunner and potential nominee, has it in spades, as witnessed by record turnouts in all of the Democratic primaries on Feb. 3. The primary season has unleashed a stronger momentum that anyone could have predicted among Democrats. Kerry is rolling up the delegates behind his wins in Missouri, Arizona, New Mexico, Delaware and North Dakota. Sen. John Edwards won in South Carolina while retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark got a narrow win in Oklahoma, both living to fight another day and thus continuing to provide vivid drama to the primary season.

There is something fierce in the Democrats this round. It's as if the liberals - many of whom served with distinction in the military - have finally tired of being insulted by insult-radio and cable television as limp-wristed weaklings who won't take up a fight. The Democrats want to win badly this time and share a widespread buzz about the Bush presidency's attack on cherished Democratic positions that compels them to action.

Love him or hate him, no one can deny that the early results of the president's policies are causing serious doubt in the American mind. Looking at the commander-in-chief before soldier crowds in military bases has its limitations as casualties mount in Iraq (54 U.S. soldiers killed in January) and the much-vaunted democratization program reveals serious divisions increasingly difficult to manage. Domestically, the "two Americas" that Senator John Edwards talks about have in fact become more obvious as 3 million U.S. jobs - along with the American manufacturing base - fly away to distant lands. The privileged political positioning (and manipulations) of the Administration's super-rich constituency is perceived negatively by more and more people, pushing the president's negatives to 48 percent in one poll. So the Democrats smell blood.

Senator Kerry has improved on the stump and is beginning to acquire a presidential demeanor, with commanding physical projection and a deep cadence to his speech that exudes Lincolnesque presence. For a Democratic constituency bent on putting up their best hope of unseating George Bush, Kerry is much the current ticket of preference. Happily for Democrats, his two closest competitors, General Wesley Clark and North Carolina Senator John Edwards, are both Southerners who could easily fit on the short list for vice-president. Kerry has a long and serious record of public service, which is his strength and his weakness (watch for Republican attacks rolling out like tank divisions). Kerry is throwing ordnance of his own (witness the attack on Bush's military record).

Howard Dean, on the other hand, is still winning even by not winning. It remains to be seen if he can in fact win an actual election but already his core support forms an enthusiastic movement that continues to sustain a substantial youth and popular wing of the Democratic party. His formidable opponents have by and large co-opted his core positions; but he has also won by substance. Howard Dean has been overtaken by more measured candidates in part because he had the daring to stake out an effective opposition voice in a no-man's land of political territory which Democrats generally had conceded without firing a shot. He is also too brainy and too passionate at once, which is a winning combination for media commentators and such, and readily understood by the college audience, but is open to vicious (and deadly) counter-punching in a presidential race. Nevertheless, watch for Dean's movement to continue beyond his campaign; our guess: watch for him to be a loyal force for the Democrats in the fall election.

The same goes for Al Sharpton, whose certainty of the word and ability to clarify a message is winning over hearts if not minds. Sharpton adds his considerable wind to the sails of Democratic momentum by representing views that need to be heard. He is likely to play a role within the party by continuing to draw clear distinctions between the two parties.

Tribal participation is very important and Indian country people certainly have a voice in all the campaigns. We invite active commentary on the campaign from all corners and sources and particularly welcome the perspectives of tribal opinion leaders. Given the primary season, much of our coverage is these days framed by Democratic positions. Indian conservative commentary representing the Bush Administration and Republican Party record on tribal issues is thus particularly welcome this season.