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The Nation | Ronald Brownstein / WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

He May Not Be Tops With Party Brass, but Dean's the One to Watch

August 11, 2003|Ronald Brownstein

New York — New York

Topic A for the politically sophisticated local businesspeople who lingered after Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt's speech to the Greenwich Village Chamber of Commerce last week was the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.

But the name on most lips in the room wasn't Gephardt's; it was that of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who has caught the imagination of activists here, as everywhere, with his stinging denunciations of President Bush and the Democratic leaders Dean says the president has intimidated.

Mr. Dean, as they say in Hollywood, is ready for his close-up.

The Bruce Springsteen treatment he received from the national news magazines last week (simultaneous covers of Time and Newsweek) confirms the verdict suggested first by his breakthrough at using the Internet to raise money and support and then by the recent polls showing him narrowly leading local favorites Gephardt in Iowa and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry in New Hampshire. Starting from obscurity, Dean has become the central figure in the 2004 Democratic race.

Whether he's the front-runner in a conventional sense is another question; although surging in money and at the polls, Dean lacks the support from party leaders and institutions that usually marks a front-runner. But he's clearly emerged as the race's pacesetter and driving force. More than anyone else, he's forcing the other candidates to react to his actions.

Tactically, he's driven all the other contenders to focus more on the possibilities of on-line politics. Dean has revolutionized the use of the Internet to identify supporters (his campaign says 75,000 people gathered around the country for Dean last week at meetings organized through the Web site Meetup.com) and to raise money. His rivals are scrambling to respond.

Dean's message also is shaping the Democratic race more than the arguments of any of his opponents, but in a complex way. Far beyond any other contender, Dean has tapped into the most powerful current in the Democratic race this year: the seething hostility in the party base toward Bush.

The passionate response to Dean's attacks on Bush has inspired the other Democrats to ramp up their rhetoric against the president. Dean's drumbeat against the administration's failure to find proof of banned weapons in Iraq has also likely encouraged the other Democrats to sharpen their own questions about the case Bush made to the country for war.

Yet Dean is as much target as model. Kerry recently attacked him from the left, complaining that Dean's call for repealing all of Bush's 2001 tax cut (which Dean wants to apply to a new drive to cover those without health insurance) would raise taxes on the middle class as well as the rich.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, desperately seeking a foothold in the race, last week attacked Dean from the other direction, portraying his rival as too liberal to win a general election. Lieberman echoed the arguments raised against Dean this spring by the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist Democratic group that Lieberman used to chair.

"I believe that kind of candidate could lead the Democratic Party into the political wilderness for a long time to come," Lieberman said. "It could be, really, a ticket to nowhere."

Lieberman's speech jabbed at Dean's weakest point: The fear that Dean could lead the party off a cliff in the general election may be the biggest hurdle he faces in the primary.

Privately, much of the Democratic establishment -- elected officials, strategists, leaders of the most powerful interest groups -- share Lieberman's conclusion. And as long as they do, it will be tough for Dean to attract much of the institutional support critical to surviving the tightly compressed primary calendar. Eventually, the anxiety among insiders might also spill over to average Democratic voters.

So, in the weeks ahead, the top priority facing Dean could be convincing the party leadership that he's not a sure loser against Bush. The terms of the argument between Dean and his critics are already emerging.

The party centrists dubious of Dean worry that he's weakest precisely where Democrats most need their candidate to be strong. A poll that the Democratic Leadership Council released last month showed Republicans already burying the Democrats when voters were asked which party could better handle national security; the fear is that Dean's unapologetic opposition to the war in Iraq could leave the party in a hole too deep on defense to overcome on other issues.

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