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Who's Purest Democrat of Them All?

Candidates step up their internal attacks over party loyalty, while activists push for a nominee who will stand up to Bush in 2004.

October 24, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When the Democratic presidential candidates meet in Detroit for a debate on Sunday, the most incendiary question may be the most basic: Who is a real Democrat?

The sharpest divisions in the contest are increasingly turning on questions of loyalty to traditional party ideals.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean set the process in motion early in the campaign when he accused several of the other candidates who serve in Congress of failing to resist President Bush on issues from tax cuts to the war with Iraq.

But lately, Dean has come under fire from Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who charge that he abandoned the Democratic Party to side with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) during the budget battles between congressional Republicans and President Clinton in the mid-1990s.

Gephardt, meanwhile, is accusing Dean, Kerry and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina of an insincere conversion to the tough-on-trade position favored by organized labor and most party liberals.

And the race's newest entrant -- retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark -- is being attacked by his rivals over his praise of the Bush administration shortly after it took office.

The backdrop for these arguments is the demand among Democratic activists for a nominee who will tear into Bush next year; in effect, each of the candidates raising the loyalty argument is trying to convince voters that others are insufficiently committed to confronting him.

"Part of these attacks is an effort to say, 'You can't trust this person to stand up to President Bush,' " said a senior advisor to Clark.

The risk for Democrats is that this increasingly insular debate will force the contenders into excessively partisan and liberal positions that could make it tougher to attract swing voters in the general election.

Much of Clinton's success in the 1990s resulted from his efforts to push his party toward the middle, stressing policies such as fiscal discipline and welfare reform. And in a recent interview appearing in American Prospect, a liberal magazine, he cautioned the current candidates against continuing their assaults on each other's party credentials.

"I don't believe that either side should be saying, 'I'm a real Democrat and the other one's not,' " Clinton said in the November issue.

Earl Black, a political analyst at Rice University in Houston, sees the Democrats returning to a pattern that helped lead the party to defeat in the past.

"It's almost a 1980s approach for the Democrats to assume that if you can find a way to unify your ideological core, then that will eventually get you in a position to be competitive in the nation," he said. "But it didn't work in the 1980s for [Democratic presidential nominees] Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis, and it sort of misses the point of thinking beyond the primaries to how you probably want to be positioned for the fall election."

Challenges to party loyalty are a familiar feature in Republican and Democratic presidential primaries. What's unusual this year, experts say, is that the charges are emerging so early in the race -- and flying in so many different directions.

At times, the argument over party loyalty has resembled a circular firing squad. During a recent Democratic debate in Phoenix, charges of party disloyalty flowed from Kerry to Clark, Gephardt to Dean, and Dean to the four presidential candidates in Congress who backed the war in Iraq -- Kerry, Gephardt, Edwards and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

For his part, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, a long-shot contender, accused Dean of betraying the antiwar cause by supporting funds to maintain U.S. troops in Iraq.

"The question of who is a real Democrat is always the subtext of every race," said Bruce Reed, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "But in past years, it hasn't emerged until the race was down to a couple of candidates."

These charges are probably proliferating now, most experts agree, because of the widespread conviction among Democratic activists that the party failed to challenge Bush aggressively enough in the 2002 election.

In polls released last week by the Democracy Corps, a party advocacy group, large majorities of Democratic voters in Iowa and South Carolina, and a narrower majority in New Hampshire, said they preferred a nominee who would "stand up" to Bush over one who could "appeal broadly to independent voters."

"If the question on the table is to locate the best fighter, then one part of the discussion is who has fought in the past, as opposed to having gone along," said Bill Galston, a former aide to Mondale and Clinton.

That subtext has been most visible in the beating Clark has absorbed for praising Bush after the 2000 election, primarily at a 2001 appearance at a Republican fund-raiser. In the Phoenix debate, Kerry used Clark's comments to suggest that Democratic voters couldn't rely on the former general to defend their priorities.

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