Keene, N.H. The bold plan for near-universal health care offered last week by Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri sent echoes across the entire Democratic presidential field. Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, who were campaigning in New Hampshire over the weekend, were asked at voter forums if they could match it -- which, at this point, they cannot.
Vermont's former governor, Howard Dean, a physician whose campaign posters proclaim "The Doctor Is In," paid tribute in his own acerbic fashion by trashing the ambitious Gephardt proposal as "pie in the sky." Dean has hoped that his own strong health care record would sustain the early momentum he has gained from his outspoken opposition to the Iraq war, but he plainly is threatened with losing that franchise.
At the Saturday night spaghetti dinner of the Cheshire County Democrats here, Dean supporters were out in force -- many of them stalwarts of the local organization noted for its liberalism and others who had come over from Vermont to show the flag. They may have outnumbered the supporters of Kerry, the other neighbor candidate, who leads the early and largely meaningless polls in the Granite State.
Edwards, the speaker of the evening and a relative stranger to the New Hampshire process, got a good taste of its famously unpredictable and sometimes weird voters.
The first questioner demanded to know what the former trial lawyer's position was on "corporal punishment." Plainly puzzled, Edwards asked a question of his own: "What do you mean by corporal punishment?" As he later confessed, he was on the verge of coming out boldly "against beating 6-year-olds" when the questioner corrected himself: "I meant capital punishment."
The next question came from a man wearing the campaign button of Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich. Edwards had salted his speech with a Reaganesque line, expressing the hope that the United States would once again be seen by the world "as that shining city on the hill, a beacon of freedom and democracy."
Kucinich's man quoted back the senator's words and then asked in scornful tones, "What year was that" when the United States so shone?
That's been our entire history, Edwards said. "Tell it to the Native Americans and the African Americans," came the reply -- and they were off on a spirited debate, which ended in prolonged applause for Edwards' defense of America's good name.
Despite such diversions, the overwhelming sense I received from my first prolonged dip into the home of the leadoff primary is that Democrats are dead-serious about real issues -- and nearly desperate to find someone who can carry their cause against President Bush.
From the stunningly well-prepared residents of the Kendal Senior Citizens Center in Hanover, who greeted Edwards with their 18-point, mimeographed list of the issues on which they will decide which candidate to support, to the 300 students and faculty and townspeople who forced a move to a larger room at the University of New Hampshire when Kerry spoke on a beautiful spring Friday afternoon, it is clear that New Hampshire is once again primed for its privileged place as the state that sorts the presidential field.
Time and again, New Hampshire's independent-minded voters have shown a preference for substance over slickness. In 2000, George Bush came riding in on a wave of endorsements and a great family name, only to see John McCain challenge him on taxes and on campaign finance and soundly defeat him. In that same year, I have a vivid recollection of Al Gore standing for three hours in a high school gym in Claremont, delaying his departure and a TV interview until the last question had been answered. That was the price he had to pay to turn back the challenge from the serious, almost scholarly Bill Bradley.
And, of course, in the last previous Democratic contest here, it was Paul Tsongas, with his position papers, who set the pace and forced Bill Clinton to go beyond the charm offensive and rush into print a campaign manifesto of his own, "Putting People First."
That is what Gephardt has done by laying out a detailed plan that would recapture the revenues from the Bush tax cuts and use them to subsidize employers, state and local governments and individuals so that virtually all Americans would have health insurance.
Much is debatable in the plan, but it is now certain that within weeks, every other Democratic hopeful will have to produce his own counterplan, and the pressure will rise on President Bush to address the lack of health insurance for 41 million Americans. A debate which has languished in Congress for nearly a decade will be joined -- in a place where the voters, thank goodness, take their responsibilities seriously.
Now, about corporal punishment, senator.