- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Gov. Dr. Howard Dean made his first sortie as a political unknown into Minnesota one year ago at the annual Humphrey Day dinner, and as many national politicos did when visiting this state, made a direct appeal to Paul Wellstone's base in the state, left-liberal Democrats and union members. Recently, he came back for a rally for his presidential campaign. A very large crowd of the socially-progressive wing of the party, including many still-grieving Wellstone supporters, showed up. It was a crowd Mr. Dean refers to as the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." His strategy, even at this early date, is clear. He has made a unequivocal play for the left liberal base of the Democratic Party. It may just work.

Mr. Dean is the only serious Democratic presidential candidate (the others being Richard Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, John Edwards, John Kerry and, probably, Bob Graham) who has consistently opposed the war in Iraq. Even now, with the military effort there probably over, and almost certainly perceived by most Americans as very successful, Mr. Dean continues his critique of President Bush's policy on the war, and has stepped up his attacks on his fellow Democratic presidential contenders for supporting the war, and the president. Although only about 20 percent to 25 percent of Americans now oppose American efforts in Iraq, Mr. Dean found a crowd of them at the Machinists Labor Temple in St. Paul. This small percentage does not add up to a majority in a national election, but Mr. Dean and his strategists are not without mathematical skills. Most Iraq war opponents are on the left, and in the left base of his party, the Dean campaign knows that 20 percent to 25 percent of all voters translates into about 40 percent of Democratic Party primary voters. In a five-way race, that amounts to a probable plurality in most primaries, including the early decisive ones (Minnesota's caucus is to be moved up to February).

Nor is the Dean strategy based on this one issue. Vermont (where Mr. Dean served a record five terms as governor) may not be a hotbed of union activity, but his campaign is making a direct appeal to liberal rank-and-file union members here and across the country. This is a potent threat to the candidacy of Rep. Gephardt, a longtime favorite of organized labor who seems to be having some difficulty closing the sale on an endorsement from the American unions who have long supported him. Since Ronald Reagan's election, furthermore, 35 percent to 45 percent of union voters have gone Republican, and Mr. Gephardt's true union base is being shrunk by the grass-roots Dean challenge. Mr. Gephardt's gutsy statesmanship in supporting the American effort in Iraq may indeed go unnoticed in the coming months of Democratic populist campaign rhetoric.

Mr. Dean is not a conventional left-winger. A longtime supporter of balanced budgets in Vermont, he told his Wellstonista audience in St. Paul that he would balance the budget if he became president. As he conceded, in an interview following the speech, that was not necessarily what his audience wanted to hear. (Perhaps no one was taking his fiscal conservatism that seriously because Mr. Dean has also promised to bring universal health care to the country.)

In the interview, Mr. Dean suggested that his unpopular message about the war was precisely the kind of reason Democrats would vote for him, presumably as someone who would speak his mind regardless of polls or public opinion. Having supported the war in Afghanistan and having the war in Iraq concluded militarily successful, Mr. Dean now however (as do all critics of Mr. Bush's policy there) has to believe we will fail to bring a better life to the Iraqi people, and that some form of democracy cannot work there. This peculiar anti-idealism has so far failed to excite all but a minority of Americans, and may not seem to be a good bet for the 2004 general election.

As a family physician-turned-politician, married to a physician, a dynamic speaker, presenting an attractive family and a credible life story, Dr. Dean could upset the early prognosticators who wrote him off as an obscure governor from a small state. The Democratic Party in recent years, as is well-known, has had a curious yen for such figures, and three out of the six latest national presidential elections have gone to them (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton twice). On the other hand, virtually all of the Democrats, governors or not, who have come from the political left (George McGovern, Mr. Carter-second term, Mike Dukakis and Al Gore) have lost.

It is, of course, very early in this contest although the campaign has begun prematurely by recent standards. Mr. Kerry already has begun to counterattack Mr. Dean, Mr. Edwards has raised the most money, and Mr. Gephardt's enormous pile of due bills, accumulated in decades of support for unions, and by years of campaigning as House minority leader for Democratic candidates, has not yet been called. Nor has Senator Lieberman's popular campaign nationally for the vice presidency in 2000 been re-tested by the voters.

But, as any general practitioner knows, a campaign against illness begins with a diagnosis. Mr. Dean seems to have diagnosed his ailing party just right so far, and his treatment may work for the short-term goal of his party's nomination. Beyond that, the prognosis is guarded and cloudy.

Barry Casselman is a national political correspondent.

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