Living in a fishbowl

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson's supported keeping Iowa and New Hampshire early in the selection process. We agree and appreciate his position but he might have overdone his justification for that position by invoking God's will.

"Iowa scrutinizes candidates through a grassroots state. They are very good at winnowing down candidates," he said. "They don't listen to national polls. Iowa voters are very independent and issue-oriented."

So far so good but then he continued.

"Iowa, for good reason, for constitutional reasons, for reasons related to the Lord, should be the first caucus and primary," he said.

When questioned about the comment later, he downplayed it, noting that it was an off-the cuff comment. However, presidential candidates should be aware that an off the cuff comment can sink a presidential campaign, especially this early when reasons are being sought for, as Richardson himself puts it, "winnowing down candidates."

Few of us would care to have all of our off the cuff comments taken apart and scrutinized word by word, but whether a legitimate qualification for a candidate or not, making verbal blunders is not acceptable and is never totally forgotten or forgiven.

The blunder does not even have to be in words. Edmund Muskie was the early frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 but his candidacy took a nosedive after he appeared to have been crying during an angry response to an editorial in New Hampshire. It is questionable whether he was actually crying but the appearance was enough to finish him as a candidate.

Some people regard the end of the Howard Dean candidacy in 2004 as the "primal scream" at the end of a speech made to supporters after a third place finish in the Iowa Democratic caucus. The term "primal scream" is an exaggeration of the noise made and it should be noted that Dean's candidacy was on the decline before the noise he made, going from frontrunner to a disappointing third place finish in Iowa.

However, the noise didn't help. It was regarded as the final nail in the coffin of Dean's candidacy and such pronouncements tend to be self-fulfilling.

Not every verbal blunder becomes fatal to a candidacy. It is still too early to know whether Richardson's comment will haunt him in the future. If not, it should serve as a valuable warning for him that comments made during a presidential campaign are made in a fish bowl.

Unfortunately, the process does not seem to prevent the eventual winner from making verbal blunders.