First Blood

When the Democratic presidential contenders face off in their first nationally televised debate Saturday night in South Carolina, look for the peace primary to end and the populist primary to begin.

The peace primary's winner was Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). A decorated Vietnam veteran, he enjoys instant credibility on national security and has the potential to counterpunch any Republican foolish enough to question his patriotism.

The runner-up in the run-up to the real race for the nomination was former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.), whose opposition to the war clinched his claim to be the Democrats' truth teller and crowd pleaser.

Starting Saturday, the multimillionaire-by-marriage Kerry and the stockbroker's son Dean will be joined on center stage by candidates such as Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), as they compete to see who can talk more credibly about jobs, paychecks, pensions and health care.

Gephardt and Edwards -- as well as marginal contenders Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and the Rev. Al Sharpton -- should benefit from a new populist moment in Democratic politics.

With unemployment rising, wages stagnating, health coverage declining, corporate chief executives' salaries and perks skyrocketing, and the network news covering corporations that are shortchanging workers' pensions while padding their top brass' retirement funds, Democratic voters will listen attentively to populist rhetoric, especially if it supports substantive proposals.

This new climate should especially help the warhorse Gephardt, who sought the presidential nomination in 1988 -- as an opponent of job-destroying free-trade deals -- with the slogan, "It's your fight, too."

Now Gephardt's populism is more pragmatic and programmatic, with a recently announced plan for universal health coverage and other proposals for portable pensions and an international minimum wage. As the debate shifts from the Iraq War, which Gephardt supported less ambiguously than Kerry, to a lagging economy, for which Gephardt offers specific solutions, voters may take a new look at a familiar face.

Meanwhile, the newest face is Edwards, a former trial lawyer and first-term senator who built his career on presenting morality plays pitting workers and consumers against corporate malefactors. Edwards presents himself as the advocate best prepared to "make the case" against an elitist president.

So how will these candidates -- as well as former vice-presidential nominee and current Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.) -- shape up Saturday night?

The accent won't be on how candidates recite their set-piece opening and closing statements but rather on the thrust and parry of questions, answers, accusations and counterpunches. The debate's moderator, ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos (who once helped prepare Bill Clinton and Michael Dukakis for televised debates), has said he'll concentrate on areas where the candidates disagree.

Seeking a candidate who can not only denounce George W. Bush but also stand a chance of defeating him, Democratic activists will look for who's best at defending controversial positions, skewering rivals and scoring rhetorical points against an absent president -- and prevailing in disagreements without being disagreeable. Candidates who can survive fire from fellow Democrats this year will seem the best bets to withstand withering attacks from a lavishly financed Bush campaign next year.

So look for the following squabbles to define the debate and set a template for a race for the nomination that could conclude next March after early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Arizona, South Carolina, Michigan and other states:

DEAN V. DEMOCRATIC PARTY. The previously obscure Dean has vaulted into the top tier of Democratic contenders by attacking his own party's leadership as vehemently as he bashes Bush. Now the Democrats Dean has denounced, particularly Kerry, Gephardt and Edwards, will have their chance to attack Dean, with Stephanopoulos no doubt egging them on.

Dean presents a tempting target: He's unusually dovish on foreign policy while a budget hawk on economics. Seizing on a statement by Dean that the United States won't always be the world's pre-eminent military power, Kerry's campaign has already branded the former governor as unfit to serve as commander in chief. Look for other contenders -- or Stephanopoulos -- to ask Dean about his fiscal conservatism, such as his praise for cuts in domestic social programs during the Korean War. Dean campaigns as the candidate of "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" -- a phrase he borrowed from the populist Paul Wellstone. But Dean's moral certitude and centrist economics (also displayed in his attack on Gephardt's plan for universal health coverage) call to mind the fiscally conservative Paul Tsongas. And Dean's attacks on a federal education law sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and the comprehensive health plan introduced by Bill and Hillary Clinton put him at odds with three Democratic icons -- a point his rivals or Stephanopoulos may make.

HEALTH-CARE HASSLE. While Gephardt's personality is bland, his health-care proposal is bold, and other candidates may join Dean in attacking it. But only Dean, a physician who expanded health coverage to almost all Vermont children and 92 percent of the state's adults, offers an alternative: an incremental plan similar to the one he implemented in his home state. And universal health coverage has been a Democratic dream since Gephardt's fellow Missourian, Harry Truman, was president.

POPULIST PRIMARY. So who will offer the best populist applause lines -- and substantive proposals? Edwards speaks populist better than anyone. His invocation of "regular people" sounds less patronizing than the more familiar phrases "ordinary people" or "average people." And when he addresses specific issues, he has a genius for translating them into populist parables. For instance, in a recent speech about higher education, he attacked early-admissions policies as well as "legacy" preferences for favoring youngsters from wealthy families. But neither Edwards nor the firebrands Sharpton and Kucinich can match Gephardt's economic initiatives. And the career congressman effectively explains them in terms of his middle-class family -- his mother who worked at too many jobs to accumulate pension credits, his son who recovered from cancer and his daughter who's struggling to survive on a teacher's salary.

AFRICAN AMERICAN PRIMARY. When Harold Washington became Chicago's first elected black mayor in 1983, there was a moment in his debates with Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley when African Americans realized with pride, and white voters admitted with astonishment, that he was at least as knowledgeable and persuasive as the other two. Moseley Braun experienced a similar moment in her successful 1992 Illinois senatorial campaign, and Sharpton out-talked hapless Democratic rivals for mayor of New York in 1997. Now they're both hoping for a Harold Washington moment Saturday night, but Stephanopoulos may pit the two African American contenders against each other, asking Braun whether she was encouraged to enter the race by establishment Democrats seeking to weaken the more militant Sharpton. Look for Mosely Braun to mention that she is as experienced as any other contender and to seek to prove that, as she's said before, "A woman can steer the ship of state." And Sharpton will have some of the best zingers, appealing to all Democrats with lines such as, "If George W. Bush believes it's an honor for 19-year-olds to risk their lives in Iraq, why does he think it's a burden for his billionaire friends to pay their taxes?"

MORALISTIC MODERATE. As the most moderate candidate in the race -- a fiscal conservative, social moderate and out-and-out hawk -- Lieberman will be the odd man out. Look for Stephanopoulos to quiz him about his centrist stands, and for Lieberman to seek common ground with Democratic voters -- his civil-rights work in the 1960s, working-class background and service as a standard-bearer in the 2000 election ("Al Gore and I beat Bush once before"). And Lieberman will campaign not as a member of a minority religion but as the standard-bearer of the majority of Americans who take religion seriously, using the word "values" as often as Kerry uses the word "Vietnam."

THE COUNTERPUNCHER. While Kerry's greatest strength is his potentially devastating responses to Republican attacks, he'll likely emphasize his credentials as a defender of Americans' security at home and abroad -- a decorated veteran, former prosecutor and expert on law enforcement, narcotics treatment and anti-terrorism efforts. If he's challenged on any of these issues --- or on his courage and commitments -- look for him to hit back hard. As he's done in stump speeches, Kerry will also present his military service as an emotional bond with working class Americans, African Americans and Latinos, all of whom have served and sacrificed disproportionately.

RÉSUMÉ WITHOUT RATIONALE. Graham's résumé is as impressive as anyone's, but he has yet to offer a rationale for his candidacy. Look for Stephanopoulos and Graham's rivals to ask the senator to explain what he stands for on Saturday night before he formally announces his candidacy Tuesday.

Will there be a memorable moment, such as occurred in a 1984 Democratic debate, when Walter Mondale challenged the "new ideas" of his rival Gary Hart, demanding to know, "Where's the beef?" Stay tuned Saturday.

David Kusnet was President Bill Clinton's chief speechwriter from 1992 through 1994 and was a speechwriter for Democratic presidential nominees Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. He is the author of Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties and a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute.

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