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The Nation

'Average, Ordinary' Dean Casts Himself as Populist

Saying he's the antidote to business-as-usual, the Democratic presidential hopeful plays up his status as an 'outsider' in Washington.

October 20, 2003|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

CENTERVILLE, Iowa — Every overstuffed settee in the lobby of the proud old Continental Hotel held one more person than it should have. White-haired people, middle-aged people and a high school government class that came for extra credit jammed together to hear the most recent Democratic presidential candidate to troop through town.

As ceiling fans swirled above him, Howard Dean served up in southern Iowa what has evolved into his consistent campaign theme. "I believe we need not just to change presidents," he said in Centerville -- and also in Sidney, Shenandoah, Bedford and Keosauqua. "I believe we need to change Washington."

His opposition to the war in Iraq was what first set the former governor of Vermont apart from the pack of Democrats seeking the White House. Now, Dean is embracing the status of "outsider," positioning himself as the antidote to business-as-usual in Washington.

His message is that Washington is controlled by special interests -- and out of touch with "average, ordinary people, just like you and me." He likes to invoke Harry S. Truman, the Missouri haberdasher who ascended to the presidency and was known for his straight talk.

"We are not as dumb as they think we are in Washington," Dean said at the public library in Corydon -- home, as a sign at the edge of town proclaims, of Voltmaster Batteries.

Even Dean's fund-raising has an average-Joe thrust. His typical donation, he announced over and over as he traversed the state last week, was $73.69.

However, by centering his fund-raising efforts on the Internet, Dean managed to raise $14.8 million in the last quarter -- nearly three times as much as his nearest Democratic rivals. His roster of campaign donors totals almost 234,000.

Dean's "outsider" message is aimed at clearly distinguishing himself from several of his rivals in the Democratic contest -- Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, John Edwards of North Carolina and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

But Dean's strategy could be derailed by the recent entry into the race of retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark -- who has never run for office before and is offering himself as a fresh political face.

Dean -- who, in discussing the economy under President Bush, told one Iowa audience that his 401(k) account had dropped by $60,000 in recent years -- also runs the risk of having his efforts to depict himself as the common man backfire.

Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen last week awarded Dean the "ultimate panderer" award for using the phrase "us rural people" during a candidate forum that focused on health-care issues.

"Right," wrote Yepsen. "Born to a wealthy family in small-town New York City, Dean attended that one-room prep school, St. Georges in Rhode Island, before donning his manure-caked boots and heading to that great land grant college, Yale."

Undeterred by such skepticism, Dean hammered away at his outsider theme on the frenzied, three-day swing through Iowa.

"My opponents have been in Washington for a combined total of 67 years," he said, again and again. "I think it is time for someone who is going to do things differently."

One day, he hit nine campaign stops that spanned close to 400 miles. At that day's last stop, at an Oktoberfest in the hamlet of Montrose, he delivered his stump speech, answered questions and posed for pictures taken with hastily purchased disposable cameras.

Then, in a rare breach of self-discipline, he gobbled up a fat slice of apple pie. He smiled in contentment and pronounced himself ready to maintain the same pace the next day.

The Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19 are the first crucial contest in the nomination race, and recent polls have found Dean and Gephardt vying for front-runner status among the state's Democrats. A strong organization is key to a strong showing on caucus night, and Dean's fund-raising success has enabled him to open four additional offices in the state -- bringing his total to 13, said Sarah Leonard, his Iowa communications director.

His Iowa campaign staff stands at about 110, double that of Gephardt's, Leonard said.

But for all the money his campaign has raised, Dean's Iowa operation has a thrifty Yankee quality. He stays in budget motels, and some of his staffers bunk for free with local families. Rather than high-priced advisors, some of his consultants on the road are volunteers.

Dean recently became the first of the Democratic candidates to win endorsements in all 99 Iowa counties. His schedule for this week would make him the first to visit every county.

With his regular-guy rhetoric and vocal criticism of U.S. involvement in Iraq, Dean is seeking to tap into a wave of anger among some Iowans.

"Right now, it's the economy, and getting out of Iraq -- I'm mad about both," said Joyce Cole, who runs a small construction business. "I think we've been lied to about Iraq -- our young people are getting killed over there. And our economy is just going down the tubes."

After listening intently as Dean promised to balance the federal budget, expand health care and create new jobs, Cole said, "I'm not sure. I'm still undecided."

Barbara Paulding, who raises Angus cattle with her husband on a small farm, said she first grew interested in Dean because of his stand on Iraq. Last week marked her third trip to a Dean event, this time at the library in Corydon.

"I like his sense of fiscal responsibility, and I like his consistent, steady message," she said.

Retired bus driver Maxine Wardlow says her biggest issue is the amount of money she spends on eight different prescription drugs she takes each day. Wardlow said she was heartened by Dean's support for allowing importation of lower-cost drugs from Canada.

"I just hope he doesn't get to Washington and let all those people with all that money come in and lobby him," Wardlow said.

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