- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2003

The new year dawns with a Democrat poised to win the crucial presidential nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire later this month, which could make him the inevitable nominee. But some party strategists worry he can’t beat President Bush in November.

Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, whose fierce opposition to the Iraq war and slashing attacks on the Democratic establishment catapulted him from obscurity to the odds-on choice for its nomination, has ignited a bitter battle with the potential to split his party.

“If Howard Dean continues to implicitly attack the Clinton agenda and the party’s Washington leadership,” says Jim Demers, the New Hampshire campaign manager for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, “he puts himself in a tough position to be a unifying force if he becomes the nominee of our party. He should rethink his attacks.”

Democrats, says another party strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity “are starting to seriously question Dean’s candidacy. You are hearing more and more people in the party talking about it.”

The struggle for the Democratic nomination is taking place as President Bush’s job-approval rating soars close to 60 percent in response to a stronger-than-expected economic recovery, falling unemployment, a rising stock market, increased support for the president’s handling of the reconstruction of Iraq, and the capture of Saddam Hussein.

The Democrats’ election prospects are only a little better in Congress. Democratic retirements have opened five Senate seats, all in conservative-leaning Southern states that offer the Republican Party its best chance in years to fortify control of the Senate.

Congressional campaign strategists foresee little change in the party’s House majority this fall. Republicans have maintained control of the House in five consecutive elections, beginning in 1994. “Unless there are more GOP retirements or a national Democratic surge, it is still very difficult to see the Republicans losing the House,” says elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

Despite an intimidating landscape, Democrats say they are unfazed by Mr. Bush’s higher job-approval ratings and the other Republican advantages.

“A year is a lifetime in politics,” says Debra DeShong, communications director for the Democratic National Committee. “This president has never gotten his re-election poll numbers above 50 percent. This is a very dangerous place for an incumbent president to be in an election year.”

Senior Republican campaign officials, in fact, cautiously downplay Mr. Bush’s recent rise in the polls, noting the difference in a general-approval rating and specific re-election poll numbers. They expect the president’s support to drop when the Democrats finally choose their nominee in Boston this summer.

“It’s going to be a close election [because] our country is evenly divided,” says Republican National Committee spokesman Jim Dyke. He noted that Mr. Bush’s chief campaign pollster, Matthew Dowd, “predicted that when the Democratic nominee emerges, we are going to fall behind that nominee. We realize that there are ups and down.”

Mr. Dean, meanwhile, has focused on criticizing Mr. Bush, a strategy he believes will energize Democrats and boost party turnout beyond its liberal, activist base. Countering his party’s skepticism and the accusations of rivals that he is weak on defense and national security issues, Mr. Dean has aggressively attacked the president on the war, calling his policies “reckless” and insisting that the capture of Saddam Hussein has not made America “any safer.”

However, the drumbeat of the daily news has made Mr. Dean, not the president, the focus of the Democratic primary campaign. His harshest critics have been his chief Democratic opponents.

The physician-turned-politician has given his opponents plenty of ammunition lately, beginning with his scoffing at the importance of Saddam Hussein’s capture, remarks his rivals have described as “irresponsible” and “naive.” Last year, after Saddam’s regime was toppled, Mr. Dean questioned whether the Iraqi people were any better off without him.

Since then, the Democratic campaign has turned into a pitched battle against Mr. Dean. After Mr. Gephardt slipped to second place in Iowa, two of his supporters ran a local TV commercial sharply criticizing Mr. Dean as weak on national security and the war on terrorism.

As a photograph of Osama bin Laden was flashed across the screen, the narrator intoned: “There are those who wake up every morning determined to destroy Western civilization. Americans want a president who can face the dangers ahead. But Howard Dean has no military or foreign-policy experience. And Howard Dean just cannot compete with George Bush on foreign policy.”

Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi called the commercial “despicable” and demanded that it be pulled. Mr. Gephardt denied having anything to do with it. Attacks on Mr. Dean by Mr. Gephardt and Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut intensified.

“Governor Dean has made a series of dubious judgments and irresponsible statements in this campaign that together signal he would in fact take us back to the days when we Democrats were not trusted to defend America’s security,” Mr. Lieberman said.

The Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19 and the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 27 will significantly thin the field of nine Democratic candidates. Advisers to Mr. Gephardt say it will be difficult if not impossible for him to remain in the race if he loses both contests. Mr. Kerry, whose strategy assumes he will finish third in Iowa, faces similar difficulty. Once thought to be the likely nominee, he has fallen increasingly behind and has mortgaged his home to raise enough cash to remain in the race.

Mr. Lieberman has bowed out of Iowa but counts on edging into second place in New Hampshire, ahead of Mr. Kerry, and winning in the next tier of primaries and caucuses Feb. 3 in Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Virginia.

The rest of the pack trails even further behind in the public-opinion polls, running in the lower single digits. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, whose campaign has drawn disappointingly little attention, hopes to show life in South Carolina, where some polls indicate he is in the lead.

Wesley Clark of Arkansas, like Mr. Edwards, counts on his Southern roots to appeal to voters in South Carolina. The Rev. Al Sharpton expects to draw strong support from South Carolina’s large black population.

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