WASHINGTON — The show has really just begun, as the Democratic presidential primary season enters its third week with candidates honing their populist messages in a contest infused with the party’s desire to upset President George Bush’s plans for a second term.

This story first appeared in the January 29, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, whose call to end “crony capitalism” has become his stump-speech mantra, can now solidly claim front-runner status after clinching Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary with 38 percent of the vote. Last week, Kerry scored a come-from-behind victory in the Iowa Caucus, the first primary season test.

Still, several weeks are expected to pass before anyone can firmly say they’re the Democratic nominee and party chairman Terry McAuliffe can take off his “ABB” — Anybody But Bush — button and replace it with a candidate’s name.

“There is too much of a desire to get to the end of the book before reading the whole story,” lamented former Anne Klein designer Charles Nolan, who quit his job to volunteer and raise funds for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who until Kerry’s back-to-back wins appeared to be the party’s favorite. Dean came in third in Iowa and scored a second-place finish in New Hampshire with 26 percent of the vote.

On Wednesday, Dean shook up his presidential campaign, replacing campaign manager Joe Trippi with Roy Neel, a longtime associate of former Vice President Al Gore.

Dean has reinvigorated young voters, who have been largely no-shows at the polls in recent elections, and laid down his populist credentials from the start with calls to revise all trade pacts to include strict labor, human rights and environmental standards, and to repeal Bush tax cuts to pay for expanded health care.

The primary season “is actually a good process, I think it’s healthy,” Nolan said. “One way or another, I think the governor has been fantastic in this campaign and has set the tone for the other candidates. The issues he raised are the ones that are resonating with the others.”

In addition to Dean pressing on, no one is yet discounting the candidacies of retired Gen. Wesley Clark and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. However, the longshot bids by the Rev. Al Sharpton and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich are expected to continue to fade, as is the candidacy of Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

While this is one of the most hotly contested Democratic primaries in recent memory, the general election is expected to be even more fierce. Polls reflect an electorate divided over core issues like the depth of the economic recovery and the war in Iraq. Seeking to distinguish themselves from Bush, the Democrats are striking longtime populist-party positions like crusading against corporate corruption, opposing tax cuts for the wealthy and advocating affordable health care with government help.

“Once the general election competition begins in earnest, I expect the Democrats will have a field day with Enron, WorldCom and the other corporate-suite scandals,” said Steve Pfister, senior vice president of government relations with the National Retail Federation. “It will be a key component of the Democrats’ strategy.”

However, Pfister noted the Democrats aren’t necessarily espousing antibusiness positions in their quest to retake the White House and recalled how several years ago Kerry was rebuked by fellow Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy for expressing doubt at the time for raising the minimum wage.

“Democrats still have to court business, but they will pursue a strategy where they specifically mention these high-profile scandals,” Pfister said.

Next Tuesday, the field of seven candidates will face its broadest test with primaries or caucuses in seven states scattered throughout the country, including the most crucial state of South Carolina, the first measure of their popularity in the South. In the 2000 election, Bush handily swept Southern states, where the GOP has a strong base, including South Carolina, where the President garnered 57 percent of the vote.

To piggyback on the South Carolina primary fever — and capture the attention of all congressional and presidential campaigns — a coalition of textile industry executives and associations are meeting today in Spartanburg, S.C., to set an agenda mindful of U.S. manufacturing interests and cautionary about foreign imports they want the politicians to follow.

About two hours away, also upstate along the North Carolina border, the textile and apparel union UNITE will hold an organized labor rally where its president, Bruce Raynor, will be joined by United Steelworkers of America president Leo Gerard, with Clark scheduled to attend.

Like in other states with industrial pockets, the loss of manufacturing jobs in South Carolina, including in textile production, is shaping up to be a central issue among voters. All the Democratic candidates have cited the 2.5 million drop in manufacturing jobs during Bush’s presidency and faulted imbalances in U.S. trading rules and enforcement as a cause of the downturn.

South Carolina has lost 91,900 total jobs, or 6 percent of its workforce, since the President took office in January 2001. Of these losses, 65,300 were in manufacturing, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Textile mills in the state shed the most workers overall during the period, or almost 24,000.

“The economy is going to be, by far, the number-one issue in South Carolina,” said Augustine Tantillo, Washington coordinator for the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, which was founded by Spartanburg, S.C.-based textile magnate Roger Milliken of Milliken & Co.

Milliken, along with other mill owners, is a longstanding member of the state’s GOP establishment showing discontent for the President’s expansive free-trade agenda as exacerbating the U.S. trade deficit to the detriment of U.S. manufacturers. However, these executives haven’t publicly taken sides on the election, choosing instead to set their markers for candidates to follow in order to garner their support.

AMTAC is spearheading the textile executive summit in Spartanburg, where officials from the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, the National Textile Association, the American Yarn Spinners Association and the American Fiber Manufacturers Association are scheduled to attend.

At the UNITE rally, union officials had hoped to snag more candidates, particularly Edwards, who was born in South Carolina, is the son of a Milliken worker and is expected to do well in the Tuesday primary. Edwards has also capitalized on his working-class routes in pounding out a populist message on trade and health care that’s similar to his opponents.

“The Edwards campaign has decided they are feeling very confident about South Carolina and so he needs to play bigger in the other Feb. 3 states” where he’ll concentrate his campaigning, said UNITE’s political director, Chris Chafe. The other primaries and caucuses that day are being held in Missouri, Arizona, Delaware, Oklahoma, New Mexico and North Dakota.

For South Carolina retailers, the most pressing issues they want to hear discussed among candidates are escalating health-care costs and the economy.

“If anybody can come up with something that is even a reasonable approach to health care for small business in particular, that person will catch fire,” said Jim Hatchell, president of the South Carolina Merchants Association. “I don’t know who that will be.”