Perhaps the most overworked cliche in politics is that a candidate "peaked too soon," but in Dean's case, that seems to have been absolutely true.
Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., the surprise second-place finisher, was certainly hot at the end but had little organization in the state. Former Gov. Howard Dean, D-Vt., was organized, but cooled noticeably over the last month, while fourth-place finisher, Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., had an organization, but was stone cold in terms of momentum and watched helplessly in the campaign's final days while his support evaporated.
It became apparent over the last weekend that many undecided Democrats were breaking for Kerry and Edwards, and, indeed, the news media sponsored-"entrance poll" of caucus attendees arriving to vote indicated that four out of 10 Democrats voting made their decision in the last week and among those voters, Edwards and Kerry were tied.
In conversations with voters around the state it became clear that many were attracted to Edwards' positive message, which went unchallenged by his opponents. Historically, Iowa caucus campaigns have been relatively clean affairs with few negative attack ads or mailings, but this time the Dean and Gephardt campaigns in particular went after each other with a vengeance, with Kerry joining in to a certain extent as well.
Edwards didn't attack any of his rivals, and they did not attack him, given his fourth-place standing in pre-caucus polls. Even after the Des Moines Register endorsement, Edwards' rivals saw little need to go after him. But in the final five days before the caucus, he began to move. By that time, the other campaigns had realized the extent of their self-inflicted wounds and had gone all positive, save mailings that had already been prepared and placed in the pipeline.
Edwards' message on the stump was pure, old-fashioned populism, speaking about "two Americas" -- the privileged and the downtrodden. And while his campaign organization was meager, to say the least, Edwards demonstrated raw political talent that obviously made up for what his operation lacked. While Edwards' performance was respectable across the state, he demonstrated real strength in the central area around Des Moines, garnering an amazing 40 percent of the vote in what was essentially a five-way race. To a certain extent this may have been driven by the Register endorsement but also by voters turned off by the negativity of the other major campaigns.
Kerry's operation appeared to be quite solid, though his own performance on the stump was pretty uneven, and generally less impressive than either Edwards or Dean. Remarkably, Kerry actually won among those caucus attendees living in labor union households with 28 percent of the vote, Gephardt and Edwards received 22 percent each. Judging from the appearance of Kerry rally attendees, the senator drew very well among Vietnam-era veterans who finally saw one of their own running for president.
Perhaps the most overworked cliché in politics is that a candidate "peaked too soon," but in Dean's case, that seems to have been absolutely true. Though he went into the holiday season with a lead in public and private polls alike, in the end, not only did he finish third, he didn't even win among the younger voters. Dean even lost to Kerry by nine points among those who got much of their candidate information online. It's true that Iowa is a state with a far older than normal electorate, more rural and small town, and, to be blunt, less yuppie than where Dean does much better, but he still dropped in the closing weeks of the campaign. To a certain extent, it can be argued that he didn't take a punch well, that when Gephardt attacked, the attacks stuck.
Although few observers expected Gephardt to win in the closing days of the caucus campaign, virtually all were stunned by his poor finish. In the convention center press room, as reporters were gathered around television monitors watching Gephardt address his supporters, there seemed to be a genuine, heartfelt sadness that his career ended on this note. The biggest losers of the night were members of organized labor, many of whom turned their backs on Gephardt, one of their best friends on Capitol Hill, and allowed their support to be split between Gephardt and Dean, ensuring that neither would win.
Where this race goes next and what it means for retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who wisely stayed out of Iowa, remains to be seen. The worst-case scenario for Clark would have been for a clear winner to emerge from Iowa. Instead, the momentum is split between Kerry and Edwards, with the latter having little organization or base in New Hampshire to build upon over the next seven days. What is clear is that this nomination is wide open.