Premature Coronation

Remember that tall guy with the four stars on his shoulder? Madonna’s pick for the presidency?

What was his name again?

Many of Campaign Desk’s colleagues, momentarily blinded by John Edwards’s early-evening victory yesterday in South Carolina, seem to have written off Gen. Wesley Clark and anointed Sen. John Edwards the sole challenger to Sen. John Kerry for the Democratic nomination.

We’ve seen versions of this movie before.

The campaign press prematurely declared Kerry the front-runner last spring. In the fall they brushed Kerry aside in their hurry to embrace Gov. Howard Dean. Once Dean failed to pass a quaint little test known as getting actual votes, the boys and girls on the bus snatched away the crown and returned it to Kerry’s brow.

And now Edwards is prematurely portrayed as a lock for second, the only one still clipping Kerry’s heels after yesterday’s contests, we’re told by sources as varied as Howard Fineman (“So it’s a big victory for Kerry with a but attached, which is John Edwards. That’s the shape of the race.”), Dee Dee Myers (“Somebody emerges as the challenger to the front runner. John Edwards wins tonight because he’s going to be that guy.”), Chris Matthews (“[Edwards is] the winner, the other winner of the night.”), the Edwards camp, and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (“[Edwards] is now looking like the only serious obstacle to Kerry’s chances to win the nomination.”)

Or worse, Clark is “all but dead,” according to a headline in today’s New York Post.

There’s one problem with all this. It doesn’t quite correspond to the facts.

Let’s review last night’s scores. First place clearly goes to Kerry, who won five of the seven states in contention and ended the night with a total of 244 delegates. But second place is not so clear.

Clark and Edwards each won one state, but neither win was particularly convincing. Clark’s win in Oklahoma was a slim one, and Edwards’s win came in the state in which he was born and reared (in a little pink house).

Clark added to his win with a second place in three other states (Arizona, North Dakota and New Mexico), while Edwards scored second in Oklahoma and Missouri.

And while Howard Dean did not win any states last night and picked up only seven delegates, he’s still in second place in delegates won to date with 121.

No matter. The press’s silver crown has alighted for the moment on the brow of the candidate from North Carolina.

Poor guy. Hope he doesn’t take a shine to it.

—Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.