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THE NATION

Attacks on Dean Just Slide Right Off

The Democratic front-runner seems immune to criticism that would sink other candidates. Supporters admire his blunt talk.

December 27, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

When Howard Dean appeared on NBC's "Meet The Press," the reviews were scathing, with most pundits calling the interview earlier this year a disaster. But others saw it differently. Traffic on Dean's Web site soared, and he collected more than $100,000 in the next 24 hours.

When Dean suggested America was no safer with Saddam Hussein in custody, rivals in the Democratic presidential contest seized on his comments as a major gaffe. But days later, more than 30 New Jersey lawmakers -- joined by Gov. James E. McGreevey -- elbowed onto a packed stage to endorse him.

The former Vermont governor has millions in the bank, more than any Democrat running, and a legion of followers, linked by the Internet, who crowd campaign events from Manchester, N.H., to Yuma, Ariz.

But there is one advantage that has proved even more valuable for the impulsive and irrepressible Dean: a Teflon coating.

For weeks, frustrated opponents have attacked the Democratic front-runner on everything from his skimpy defense and foreign policy credentials to the secrecy he slapped on his gubernatorial records. Nothing has stuck.

Stumbles, such as Dean's remark about Confederate flag-wavers, and factual misstatements, such as his assertion that no other candidate was discussing race before white audiences, have not only failed to slow his momentum but redoubled the commitment of Dean supporters.

"It's about all of us saying [expletive] to all the pundits," said Michael Cannon, 49, a New Jersey state worker who attended a rally in Trenton with a Dean sweat shirt, T-shirt and button on the back of his cap.

"Whenever negative stories surface, that just proves to me that I should be behind him all the more," Cannon said.

There has always been a strong anti-establishment flavor to the Dean campaign. So whenever he fumbles in the eyes of so-called experts, it makes him all the more attractive to disaffected Democrats scornful of institutions like the major media.

The campaign even posts some of the harsher criticism on Dean's Web site to spur fundraising. When a mysterious political group called Americans for Jobs, Healthcare and Progressive Values began airing an anti-Dean ad earlier this month with images of Osama bin Laden, the former Vermont governor's camp amassed $552,000 in a three-day Internet fundraising push.

"It's a polite way of saying where you can take it," Dean said. But even more, he seems to benefit from his unscripted, uncompromisingly blunt talk. Supporters see the occasional miscue as perfectly understandable, even virtuous. No matter that Dean has already apologized several times during the campaign, most famously for his statement that he wanted to be the candidate for "guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks."

"It shows he's human," said Clifford Rames, 38, another Dean backer from New Jersey, who appropriated a blue-and-gold "Dean for America" sign as a souvenir from the McGreevey rally. "He's a person who goes to work every day and occasionally messes up," Rames said, which suggests that Dean would not only be "a human president, he would understand the average person."

But skeptics, fearful that Dean would be a disaster as the Democratic nominee, say he may be getting the wrong signal from his fervent followers, in the same way an ill-mannered child is indulged by overly protective parents.

"Whenever he screws up, the campaign is quick to point out that e-mail traffic is up, contributions over the Internet are up," said John Weaver, a former advisor to Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona who now consults for Democratic candidates.

"But those are all coming from tried-and-true supporters.... Surveys suggest a limit to his growth potential for a general election campaign, and that's what is worrisome to Democrats."

Already, rivals have seized on some of Dean's more provocative statements -- including his recent comments regarding the capture of Hussein -- to suggest the damage his comments could do to him, along with fellow Democrats, in a general election campaign.

And on Friday, Dean was again explaining a provocative statement, this one made in an interview with the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.

In that interview, Dean said it was premature to recommend what penalty Bin Laden should face before he's been legally determined to be guilty of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

"I still have this old-fashioned notion that even with people like Osama, who is very likely to be found guilty, we should do our best not to, in positions of executive power, not to prejudge jury trials," he said.

Friday, Dean said that the sentiment he expressed does not mean that he sympathizes in any way with Bin Laden.

"As a president, I would have to defend the process of the rule of law. But as an American, I want to make sure he gets the death penalty he deserves," Dean told Associated Press in an interview.

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