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Can anyone catch Dean?

From KAREN TUMULTY


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Some are saying the doctor is already in. Here's why his rivals haven't caught on, what they're doing to stop him and why he may be his own worst enemy

Over the past year, whenever one of the leading Democratic presidential candidates made his way to the downtown Washington office of Andrew Stern, head of the nation's largest union, he came away with two things: a bit of advice and the names of local officials across the country.

"I'm the voice of 1.6 million members," the president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) told those who sought his endorsement. "Go talk to them." Only one candidate, Stern says, took him up on it. Howard Dean not only talked to SEIU members, he showed up on their picket line at Yale University, cheered their organizers at a San Francisco hospital and consulted the union's nurses in Iowa as he put together his proposal for solving the shortage in their profession.

"Howard Dean didn't start on top," Stern says, "but he certainly ended up on top."

If the onetime long shot looked like a front runner before last week, the political pundits were declaring him all but unstoppable after Wednesday's joint endorsement by Stern's union and the 1.4 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

As recently as six months ago, the betting was not if but when Dean would flame out. But the former Vermont Governor has roared ahead by defying three early assumptions about the race. When the leading candidates believed it would be political suicide to oppose George Bush on national security, Dean unambiguously inveighed against the Iraq invasion and caught the Democratic Party's antiwar wave.

While the others were dialing for $2,000 checks and lining up big-name political consultants, Dean seized on the Internet's potential to raise money and organize grass-roots support. (He had been running for more than a year before he hired a pollster.)

And as consequential as anything else, he focused his energy outside the political establishment at a time when the top contenders nearly all of them creatures of the Beltway believed that big donors, party kingmakers and powerful interest groups were the best assets to have in an overcrowded field.

Just as Dean's supposed weaknesses have turned out to be strengths, the supposed strengths of the other candidates have turned out to be their weaknesses. John Kerry tried to make his campaign about courage, but his was called into question by his conflicting and conflicted stances on Iraq.

Joe Lieberman sold his candidacy on integrity but came off as a finger-wagging scold (and the only major Democratic candidate whose unfavorable ratings outweighed his favorable ones in a New Hampshire poll this month by the American Research Group).

The exciting new face in the field, John Edwards, seemed too green and untested for a post--9/11 nation, and the most seasoned, Dick Gephardt, appeared too scarred by his long service and too bound to the ways of Capitol Hill for Democrats desperate for a win.

As for the latest entry, retired General Wesley Clark, his clumsy first weeks have proved his boast that he's not a politician and have shown that military discipline doesn't always apply to other endeavors. "The people that were supposed to break out just never did," says Steve Jarding, an adviser on Florida Senator Bob Graham's failed campaign. "It just seems like everyone has been stuck in neutral."

At the same time, Dean has been running so fast that his vulnerabilities haven't caught up to him. "He's quick of lip, and quick of temper and stubborn," says Democratic activist Harold Ickes, a close adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton.

"In another time, the Confederate-flag story [Dean's comment that he's courting the voters who display them on their pickup trucks] would have taken him down the drain." It took Dean five days to apologize for the Confederate-flag gaffe, but that mini-brouhaha might be just a prologue to the scrutiny he will face on inconsistencies in his record on issues from affirmative action to trade. That's why many believe the greatest threat to Dean is Dean himself.

The Vermonter's rise has relegated every other candidate to positioning himself as Dean's foil. Aides to the top-tier candidates are all whispering to reporters, "It's us and Dean." Right now each candidate is looking for a message with traction and for a turn in the road where he might ambush the front runner.

To add some intellectual ballast and gravitas to his image, Edwards last week started airing ads stressing the depth of his ideas and inviting viewers to download from his website a 60-page booklet of his proposals.

Clark will run his first ads in New Hampshire this week, and he plans to announce a series of congressional endorsements moves that he hopes will burnish his political credentials and emphasize his ability to defeat Bush.

The candidate who has the first and maybe the best chance of tripping up Dean is Gephardt. Showing the skills that come with having run for President before, Gephardt has mounted the most steady, effective and coherent line of attack, blistering Dean over his earlier support for Newt Gingrich's Medicare-reform plan and for raising the retirement age for Social Security.

It's paying off in Iowa, which has one of the oldest populations in the country and which Gephardt won in 1988. But even in Iowa, where the latest polling shows Gephardt's lead widening, the Missouri Congressman is hearing footsteps. Two months before the Iowa voting starts, Dean already has as many paid campaign workers there as Gore did on the day he overwhelmingly won the caucuses in 2000, and Dean's AFSCME endorsement gives him an additional army on the ground there.

Even if Gephardt wins Iowa, Dean forces are questioning how far he can get after that. Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi was Gephardt's deputy manager in 1988. Winning Iowa then, he says, "got Gephardt nothing. He won Iowa and then went nowhere. Replaying the movie, I don't think you're going to get a different result this time."

A second-place finish in Iowa, though, may be little more than a speed bump to Dean as he heads for New Hampshire a week later.

The state is a must-win for Massachusetts' Kerry, who was once presumed to be the front runner but now looks more irrelevant than inevitable. In the latest WMUR-TV and University of New Hampshire poll, released last Friday night, Dean opened a gaping 38%-to-16% lead over Kerry, and no one else topped 5%. Kerry's fund raisers are telling him it's getting next to impossible to find anyone willing to write a check to his campaign.

Last week the Senator fired campaign manager Jim Jordan, announced he's following Dean's lead in opting out of spending limits for his campaign and vowed "to get really real and focused." That declaration, of course, only raised the discomfiting question of what he's been doing until now.

Dean has so flattened the competition that the race for third place in New Hampshire is almost as vigorous as the race for first. Lieberman, Edwards and Clark are making their play for independents, who can vote in either party's primary, in hopes of claiming at least a victory over expectations.

"In New Hampshire, it's not about what you finish, it's about what you finish compared to conventional wisdom," says Lieberman pollster Mark Penn. "The national constituency and the constituency in the Feb. 3 states would light up considerably if they saw [Lieberman] finish third in New Hampshire."

All these calculations are being made months before the first vote has been cast, and the national polls suggest that most Americans haven't given the race much thought at all. It's not until Feb. 3--with seven contests in South Carolina, Delaware, Missouri, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and North Dakota that the Democratic race will begin to take the pulse of the candidates' national appeal.

Four days later comes the big state of Michigan, starting off a procession of primaries that leads to the biggest ones of all, New York and California, on March 2.

People in most states aren't as steeped in politics as the voters of New Hampshire and Iowa, and aren't likely to start paying serious attention until primary day is upon them. The trick for each candidate except Dean could be to last long enough to be there when they do.

Even the other campaigns concede privately that if Dean hasn't stumbled by then and particularly, if he has won both Iowa and New Hampshire the race could be all but over before the other candidates get to test their appeal outside the political-hothouse environment of the small, early states. If so, the front-loaded primary process may backfire, giving the first contests more, not less influence over the outcome.

A major obstacle to any of the other candidates overtaking Dean is the simple fact that there are so many of them. South Carolina, for instance, will be closely watched as the first test of how well the various candidates do in the South. But with nine candidates dividing up the votes there, someone might be able to win with as little as 20% of the vote.

Given these numbers and the fact that 40% of South Carolina Democrats opposed the war, that someone could be Dean a candidate, even his own strategists admit, who wouldn't have a prayer of winning a Southern primary in a smaller field. "In a nine-person field, Dean is in the driver's seat," says Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's 2000 campaign.

Still, no one seems inclined to drop out, because each sees himself as the candidate who could ultimately beat George Bush. This, of course, is why they all got into the race in the first place. But as they have found out in one way or another, thinking you can beat George Bush is a lot different from winning that chance.



Copyright © 2003 Time Inc.

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