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Moves Expected to Bolster Dean Front-Runner Status

November 08, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, already considered the front-runner in the Democratic presidential race, will dramatically widen his advantage with a series of moves expected over the next few days.

Today, Dean is likely to announce that he will become the first Democratic candidate ever to opt out of the public financing system, a decision that could expand the financial advantage he already enjoys over his rivals.

On Wednesday, he's expected to receive an unprecedented joint endorsement from two of the nation's largest and most politically sophisticated unions: the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Together, these developments would create an imposing organizational and financial challenge for Dean's rivals -- whose best hope of overcoming his lead at this point may be Dean's tendency to wound himself with controversial remarks, like his recent comments about the Confederate flag.

"He was the front-runner before; he now becomes the big gorilla," Tony Coelho, a campaign chairman for Al Gore in the 2000 presidential race, said Friday. "I don't see anybody in the whole scheme of things who can beat him now. The question will be whether Dean can stop Dean."

Such comments underscore the remarkable evolution of Dean's campaign.

He began his candidacy as a classic political insurgent who had little money or name awareness but hoped to excite grass-roots enthusiasm through relentless campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire -- site of the first contests in the nomination process -- with a message that criticized the party establishment.

Since then, Dean has become a hybrid candidate for whom there is no exact precedent. While he continues to stir excitement with the fervent anti-establishment message, he's also accumulating the financial and organizational resources that usually flow only to a candidate favored by the party establishment.

For Dean, the gains are reinforcing each other. One reason he is getting labor support is that he has demonstrated enough fund-raising clout to consider leaving the public financing system -- which, if he wins the nomination, would put him in better position to compete with President Bush.

"For a lot of people, the possibility of [opting out of the system] puts an extra check mark next to our name," said Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager.

What makes this movement toward Dean more remarkable is that it is occurring while many Democrats still fear that his liberal views on the Iraq war and gay rights, and his sometimes volcanic temperament, would make him an easy general election opponent for Bush.

A senior strategist for one of Dean's rivals said that by aligning behind Dean, the SEIU and AFSCME are repeating the mistake that an array of labor leaders made in 1984, when they helped power former Vice President Walter Mondale to the Democratic nomination -- only to see him crushed by President Reagan in the general election.

"I know from having traveled in the South and Southwest you are going to end up with a candidate [in Dean] who is virtually unelectable in the general election," the strategist insisted.

But while many centrist Democrats still share those fears, others have reassessed Dean. In particular, he's turned heads by his ability to raise money in small donations, largely through the Internet, and his success at exciting his party's core supporters -- which many strategists, both Democrats and Republicans, are coming to view as more central to winning in 2004 than converting swing voters.

For Dean, the expected endorsement next week from the 1.4-million-member AFSCME may be invaluable in quashing questions about his electability.

In some respects, his support from the 1.6-million-member SEIU is not that surprising, since the union's main focus is expanding access to health care -- Dean's top domestic priority -- and its president, Andrew Stern, is considered one of the nation's most liberal labor leaders.

But AFSCME President Gerald W. McEntee is regarded as one of labor's most politically pragmatic and savvy leaders. His focus on finding the strongest general election candidate earlier led him to flirt with endorsements of Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts or retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark.

For McEntee to join Stern behind Dean would send a powerful signal to other Democrats that key parts of the party establishment have grown more comfortable with Dean's prospects against Bush.

Although the AFSCME will not make its decision official until a meeting of its international board on Wednesday, sources say McEntee has already notified other Democratic contenders that the union will join the SEIU in endorsing Dean.

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