The Note

Just today, Joe Lieberman has a new plan for paid family leave; John Edwards is trying to limit the role of special interests; John Kerry goes into the world's stuffiest room to lay out (again) his foreign policy vision; Wes Clark does early childhood development; Dick Gephardt basks in the glory of a major boffo "Tonight Show" appearance during which he looked relaxed and presidential; and more.

But scan the papers and the strategies, and (trot out that Baltimorean Classic yet again), it's Dean, Dean, Dean, Dean.

And leading up to this Tuesday's Dust-up in Durham — the year's final debate among the Democratic presidential candidates, at 7 pm ET in Durham, N.H. and featured on that night's Nightline on ABC and airing live on WMUR in the Granite State and on C-SPAN — the questions about what can stop Dean's momentum remain as big and bold and unanswerable as they have always been.

While Ron Fournier offers his must-read take on the Feb. 3 contests, LINK, let's face it: New Hampshire will do much more than any other state to determine the nominee because of the political press' obsession with process and winnowing and tradition.

The Note has long opposed the determinative "X-must-exceed-expectations in a particular state" standard, or asking candidates who don't do well in New Hampshire only different variations of the same one question ("When are you getting out of the race?").

But having a waged a two-year campaign to get Ron Faucheux, Charlie Cook, Larry Sabato, David Yepsen, and every academic and political consultant under the sun to stop perpetuating this culture that deprives later-voting states from having a say in the determination of the major party nominees, we give up.

We vowed that if we couldn't win this fight by December 1 of 2003, we would surrender — so this is our white flag.

So while "stopping" Howard Dean in Iowa is important to keeping him from the nomination, stopping him in New Hampshire is vital.

(And, yes, Burlington, we realize you will raise $100,000 on the web on that last sentence alone — there's nothing we can do about that.)

As Walter Shapiro brilliantly points out today in a USA Today total must-read, the "Dean conundrum" has him as "a front-runner with many vulnerabilities but no obvious Achilles heel." LINK

Nothing (nothing beyond sluggish fundraising … ) has so annoyed the other Democratic campaigns than the seeming free ride Dean has gotten on a range of issues large and small.

Part of this has been based on the failure of the press corps to hold Dean to a standard befitting the front runner (or, in fact, befitting any serious candidate).

Part of it is the rejection by Dean's core supporters of the normal rules of the fallout from political gaffes and inconsistency. And that is the part that most scares Dean's opponents, because while the first part will likely change by January, the second might NEVER change.

In fact, the January attacks might counter-intuitively make Dean stronger, as his supporters rally against the Establishment and the media with hard work and donations.

(Yes, another $100,000.)

Just consider the last 24 hours:

A. Dean's stammering, inconsistent, error-filled performance in Iowa regarding what he will do (and has done) about his sealed records barely made it to even cable TV, although the newspaper accounts — even from the ultra-fair Dan Balz — are dripping with skepticism. LINK And the Wilmington Star hits him for it too. LINK

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