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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Shooting From the Hip, Dean Drew Fire

February 08, 2004|Matea Gold and Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writers

The day after Saddam Hussein was caught in his spider hole, Howard Dean stepped before a crush of TV cameras to offer a statesmanlike appraisal.

It was "not a day to talk about politics," the former Vermont governor said that muggy December morning in Palm Beach, Fla. He saluted the military and called it "a great day" for the Bush administration.

Fewer than 24 hours later, however, Dean's tone shifted -- and along with it the fortunes of his high-flying campaign.

As his caravan motored to a Los Angeles hotel, Dean penciled a new line into the foreign policy address he was about to give. He had labored for months over the speech, helped by a team of eminent advisors that included former Vice President Al Gore.

But that one line inserted on the spur of the moment, an assertion that Hussein's capture had not made America safer, dominated the headlines and reverberated in the Democratic presidential campaign for weeks.

The statement was the kind of off-the-cuff observation that had long endeared Dean to legions of disaffected Democrats. But to many just tuning in to the presidential contest, it seemed wrong, and even a little reckless.

Although it was unclear at the time -- and the truth of Dean's statement can still be debated -- the comment marked the beginning of his descent from front-runner to the straits he finds himself in today.

"I think it sent shock waves," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. "It was just too out there for a lot of people ... and Dean's believability index started slipping."

After being shut out in the first 11 nominating contests -- including Saturday's caucuses in Michigan and Washington state -- Dean is hoping a win on Feb. 17 in Wisconsin can salvage his candidacy. But even his top advisors have conceded the strategy is a longshot.

And in a further setback, Dean on Saturday lost the endorsement of one of the country's largest unions -- the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The mid-November decision by AFSCME and the Service Employees International Union, another large labor group, to back Dean was a major boost and added to the sense that Dean was steamrolling toward the nomination.

With its record-shattering Internet fundraising and overflow crowds at rallies, the Dean campaign had often seemed to defy the laws of political physics. He showed a shaky command of issues during a summer interview on "Meet the Press"; he caused a flap last fall by saying he wanted to appeal to Southerners who embrace the Confederate flag; he drew fire for sealing some of his gubernatorial records.

None of it seemed to matter to his supporters, who had been thrilled by his early and staunch opposition to the war in Iraq.

But in the end, Dean was tripped up in large part by human frailties: impulsiveness, inexperience and an unwavering confidence -- a reflection, perhaps, of his physician's training, which kept him from modifying his strategy to fit changing circumstances, as if doing so was admitting a misdiagnosis.

Dean has said he was never comfortable in the role of early front-runner, and it showed. The candidate and his staff also made rash decisions, spent too much money and physically overtaxed themselves.

"There wasn't the restraint and maturity of husbanding resources for the long haul," said David Nagle, a former Iowa congressman and Dean backer in that crucial state. "You don't need a different color T-shirt at every event.... They were spending resources like there was no tomorrow."

As the front-runner, Dean came under withering fire from his opponents and heightened scrutiny from the media, and failed to bear up well under either. He was the first to attack the other major Democratic candidates, denouncing their backing of the Iraq war and calling them craven for not being tougher on Bush. But Dean grew irritable when he became the target, at one point asking Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe to muzzle his foes.

Flush with cash, the campaign decided to forsake federal matching funds, freeing Dean to spend as much money as he could raise. He bought ads in several states and boasted of running a national campaign. The idea was to win Iowa and New Hampshire, then lock up the nomination in the contests that quickly followed.

But Dean strategists badly miscalculated. Heady with their stratospheric success, the candidate and his crew mistakenly thought the passion of die-hard "Deaniacs" would translate into a groundswell of support. When Dean stumbled in Iowa and New Hampshire, dropping both to Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the campaign was at a loss -- and nearly broke.

"We never had a second act," said one senior advisor.

In short, the laws of political physics finally caught up with Dean, who learned the hard way that successful candidates bend to their immutable force, not the other way around.

It all began unraveling in Iowa, coming apart with remarkable speed.

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