- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 6, 2003

Howard Dean may be the undisputed front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in the polls, but not among governors and most of the Democrats in Congress.

Six weeks before Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire begin choosing their candidate for president, the feisty former Vermont governor remains a little-known political figure to most of the country and in much of his party — drawing little formal support from the Democrats’ national political establishment. More than a third of Democratic voters in most states say they are still undecided.

Despite five terms as governor, his chairmanship of the Democratic Governors’ Association and a 30-point lead in New Hampshire polls, not a single governor and relatively few members of Congress are backing the physician turned politician in his bid to challenge President Bush in 2004.

Mr. Dean has been endorsed by 15 House Democrats and only one Senate Democrat, Patrick J. Leahy, who represents his home state of Vermont. This compares with 33 House members who have endorsed Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and 20 lawmakers who are backing Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Wesley Clark, a retired general, has the support of the two senators from Arkansas and Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York. None of the nation’s Democratic governors has endorsed anyone.

Dean campaign officials say he has begun to make inroads in the 425-member Democratic National Committee, but they decline to say how many endorsements he has received. They say Mr. Dean will have to resolve deep ideological differences within the party if he is to unite Democrats behind his insurgent, antiwar candidacy.

They also say the difference in endorsements is meaningless. “Gephardt, Kerry and the rest of the crew have been working in Congress for half a century between them and together they have relatively few more endorsements in Congress than Governor Dean,” said Dean campaign spokesman Jay Carson.

The Dean campaign says its candidate has won the support of 565 various state and local elected officials and other party leaders across the country.

“More important than [endorsements from] party officials, members of Congress and governors are the more than 500,000 voters who have signed up to support Dean’s campaign. This far surpasses support for the other candidates,” Mr. Carson said.

But strategists for Mr. Dean’s closest rivals say the lack of any major endorsements is a sign that the party’s establishment has serious problems with Mr. Dean’s candidacy and are waiting for the large number of undecided party leaders to unite behind the clearest alternative to Mr. Dean as the nine-member field of candidates shrinks.

“If Al Gore, or Bill Clinton or Michael Dukakis were in the race today and were blowing away the opposition in New Hampshire by 30 points, as Dean is doing now, there is little doubt that they would have many more endorsements at this juncture in the race,” said a senior adviser to one of Mr. Dean’s competitors for the nomination.

“One would think that there would be more institutional support for Dean than there is now. There is something particularly about Dean that makes people pause,” this adviser said on the condition of anonymity.

Some of Mr. Dean’s other rivals have been talking privately about organizing a “stop-Dean” movement to get behind the candidate who shows the most strength against Mr. Dean in Iowa and New Hampshire.

“Because no one has emerged as a strong challenger to Dean, [party leaders and most rank-and-file congressional officials] are not supporting any of these guys. They are waiting for an alternative to Dean to make sure they can stop a Dean candidacy,” said another Democratic presidential campaign strategist.

The 800 “unpledged” superdelegates conceivably could go to the Democratic National Convention in July and help deny the front-runner the nomination in a close battle for delegates. But virtually none of the camps sees that happening because of the compressed primary schedule that is tailored to give the front-runner the number needed to clinch the nomination by early March at the latest.

“If you know the Democratic Party, you know that it doesn’t vote as a bloc,” said Steve Grossman, the former Democratic National Committee chairman who is now co-chairman of the Dean campaign.

However, Mr. Grossman says most of the party’s top elected officials have been waiting until after the early primaries to endorse a candidate. The reason for their delay, he said, is “political crosscurrents” in the states over the large field of candidates that make a major endorsement “politically difficult right now.”

Much of the enmity toward Mr. Dean has to do with his insurgent campaign that is at its core anti-establishment, other party strategists said.

“Howard Dean is an outsider in Washington. He is competing with a group of rivals who have been deeply entrenched in Washington for years,” Mr. Grossman said.

“I don’t think it is a question that [Democratic members of Congress] don’t like Dean, but that they don’t know him that well. They are somewhat confounded by a nontraditional, grass-roots campaign,” he said.

Still, Mr. Grossman readily acknowledges that “there are some significant ideological divisions in the Democratic Party as we move through the primary process. But I have no doubt that post-primary, Dean will have no trouble binding up the wounds of the Democratic Party and bring Democrats together for the campaign in the fall.”

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