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With a Pile of Money, Dean Ups the Ante

Primaries are months away, but the other candidates are pressed to make a move soon.

August 31, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — After beginning the year as a longshot, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has surged past his rivals as the race for the Democratic presidential nomination hits the Labor Day milepost.

Dean has raised more money than any of his opponents in recent months, rocketed to the top not only of polls in Iowa and New Hampshire but some national surveys of Democrats, and drawn much larger crowds than usually seen at this point in the nomination process.

"Dean has dramatically altered the race," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, a centrist Democratic group. "He has become the front-runner."

Major tests await Dean, including a series of candidate debates that begin this week. And more twists and turns may be inevitable, since relatively few Democrats outside of the first states on the primary calendar are paying close attention to the contest. "No campaign has ever put a lock on things in the summer," said Jim Jordan, campaign manager for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). "This thing will be settled somewhere in the snow."

But with Dean demonstrating so much strength, the pressure is rapidly intensifying on the contest's eight other candidates to slow his momentum or increase their pace -- or both.

Although the first voters won't cast ballots until January, a wide range of Democratic strategists say that if the other candidates cannot change the race's trajectory in the next three months, Dean may establish advantages too large to overcome.

"Whatever third-quarter strategy they have been waiting to unveil, it's time to unveil it now," said Donna Brazile, who managed Democratic nominee Al Gore's 2000 campaign. "If they have something to offer the American people, I don't know what they are waiting for."

Dean appears on track to raise significantly more money than his Democratic rivals for the reporting period that ends Sept. 30. That would send shock waves through a Democratic establishment still concerned that Dean's unrelenting opposition to the war in Iraq might make him an easy general election opponent for President Bush.

"The guy is in fourth gear and everyone else is in first," said a senior party strategist who has helped direct several Democratic presidential campaigns. "In that case, the lights in the car ahead become distant pretty quickly. You can't allow someone to break from a pack when you are in a pack."

That imperative is likely to mean more attacks on Dean in the weeks ahead, starting Thursday in New Mexico at the first of several debates sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee. But finding ways to attract a second look at their own campaigns may be even more important for the other main contenders -- Kerry, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, all of whom have found themselves overshadowed by Dean.

"There is plenty of time," said longtime Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who is neutral in the race. "The question is: Is there a message or a persona by which one of the other candidates can emerge? Part of the reason Dean has emerged is that nobody else has presented a very detailed or attractive picture."

With the war in Iraq and the California gubernatorial recall dominating the news and the 2004 election more than 14 months away, presidential politics seem distant to most Americans. But the calendar is already pressing on the Democratic hopefuls.

The Iowa caucus will be held Jan. 19; the traditionally pivotal New Hampshire primary follows on Jan. 27. Several other states conduct primaries soon after, and the race could be decided by mid-February. The nominee is almost certain to be chosen no later than March 2, when a dozen states -- including California, Ohio and New York -- will vote.

With so many contests looming so soon, the race's pace should accelerate rapidly after Labor Day. Following the debate in Albuquerque, the candidates will square off the following few weeks in New York City and Baltimore. On Sept. 8, they are to make joint appearances before two of the most powerful unions that have not yet endorsed a candidate: the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Dean's ascent has raised the stakes in all of these events for his opponents. Indeed, his campaign in recent days demonstrated a display of strength that forced all the other Democratic contenders to reconsider their candidacies.

He drew large crowds -- including at least 8,000 in Seattle and New York -- during a four-day, coast-to-coast series of rallies. As the tour ended early last week, campaign manager Joe Trippi announced that Dean, who has used the Internet to raise money more effectively than any candidate before him, would collect at least $10.3 million in the period from July through September.

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