||Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.
Campaign 2004: A consumer's guide
WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- To look behind the curtain and to penetrate the "smoke and mirrors" tactics resorted to by those mostly good souls in the political world, here are some (hopefully) helpful hints for making sense of what's now about to happen.
Remember: Winning is coming in first
Underdog U.S. Sen. John Edwards, D-North Carolina, has won favorable reviews for his second-pace finish in the Wisconsin primary where, the press consensus has proclaimed, Edwards ran "better than expected."
Nobody has ever seen or met this "expected" fellow. But just about everybody -- including even vanity candidates the Rev. Al Sharpton and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucincih, D-Ohio, who, this year, are playing the roles Republicans Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer filled in the 2000 campaign -- has claimed at one time or another to have run ahead of "expected."
Now that the Democratic contest is a two-man (that's right, they're both males) race between U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, and Edwards, the latter can no longer do "better than expected," because the first rule of primary politics obtains: Winning is coming in first.
The candidate who dominates the dialogue almost always wins
In Iowa, which John Kerry won, the emphasis and much of the Democratic voters' attention was on the electability factor: which of these candidates could actually retire President George W. Bush in November.
In Wisconsin, whose citizens have suffered the loss of more than 80,000 manufacturing jobs in the Bush-Cheney years, Edwards dominated the debate on the human costs of free trade and jobs.
Most of the press corps and nearly all editorial writers think "free trade" and globalization are both inevitable and peachy ... in the Big Picture.
That view may be revisited by the news that Reuters has just hired two business reporters from India to do the work formerly assigned to North American reporters.
If one major news organization hires as its Washington bureau chief a Third World journalist -- at a fraction of the salary paid to her predecessor -- the press bus could take a critical second look at the blessings of Free Trade.
Presidential preference poll numbers in February have all the permanence of numbers written in the sand at the ocean's edge
Democrats are euphoric at recent polls that show both Kerry and Edward with double-digit leads over President Bush. One word of advice: Fuggedaboutit.
There are, however, two poll questions, the answers to which do in fact indicate the strength or weakness of an incumbent president or his party. They are:
• Do you think that things in the country are generally headed in the right direction or do you think things are seriously off on the wrong track?
• Do you think the president deserves to be re-elected to another term?
Right now, a bare majority believes that things in the country are headed in the wrong direction and a plurality believes that the Bush does not deserve re-election.
In the summer of 1992, by a four-to-one margin, voters believed that the country was headed in the wrong direction, and that November Bill Clinton defeated the first President Bush.
In the fall of 2000, by a margin of 61 percent to 36 percent, voters thought the nation was headed in the right direction, but that was not enough to save Democrat Al Gore.
Why are Democratic voters in 2004 so apparently concerned about a presidential candidate's "electability"? After all, in 1972 Sen. Ed Muskie was far more electable than George McGovern, and in 2000 Bill Bradley was more electable than Gore -- but Democrats in both instances passed over the more electable candidate.
Timing truly is everything in politics. As recently as three presidential elections ago, Democrats were confident that their party held a permanent "lock" on a majority in the U.S. House and had regained control of the Senate.
Now, all that has changed. Democrats understand that the GOP's control of both the House and the Senate is solid -- as well as that of the Supreme Court.
Add to that a sense among Democrats that the conservative press is ascendant, especially on TV and radio, and you begin to comprehend why Democrats see the presidency in 2004 as their last, best and only chance to stop total conservative Republican control of the nation's political life.