- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2003

Despite everything written about the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, not enough has been said about the party’s deepening anxiety over Howard Dean’s candidacy.

Catapulted to front-runner by that party’s antiwar, activist base, Mr. Dean’s liberal, anti-establishment insurgency has apparently frightened party leaders as no one has — well, since the days of George McGovern, Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis.

Despite the well-financed, grass-roots organization that has fueled Mr. Dean’s rise, few in the Democratic leadership here have been drawn to his banner. “Instead of consolidating support within the party establishment, Dean is polarizing it,” writes Ryan Lizza in the New Republic.

Nowhere is this division greater than in the South and Border states, a deeply conservative region that George W. Bush swept through in 2000 and will likely carry again in 2004.

Interviews with several Democratic leaders in these states drew surprisingly frank criticism and doubt about the former Vermont governor.

Some spoke on the record, while others would speak of Mr. Dean only on background. In either case, they voiced their fears that his rigid opposition to the Iraq war, his pledge to repeal all the Bush tax cuts, and his latest proposal to re-impose government regulations on businesses would lead their party to defeat next year.

“Dean is perceived as quite liberal,” said Kentucky state Rep. Susan Westrom, the state’s Democratic chairman. “Unless his perception can go beyond the governor of Vermont who signed legislation supporting gay marriages, that is a death knell.”

Moretta Bosley, the state’s former Democratic chairman, doesn’t mince words, either. “He would have a hard time carrying Kentucky. He’s a little too liberal for most Kentuckians, who are more conservative than the rest of the Democratic Party.”

North Carolina Democratic Chairman Barbara Allen is similarly worried about the impact Mr. Dean’s candidacy would have in her state.

“I don’t think he plays that well in North Carolina,” she told me. “I don’t think he will play well in the South, period. … His remark about going after voters in pickups with Confederate flags rubbed people the wrong way here. I found it offensive.”

Ms. Allen, who is backing North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, says she wants the party to pick “a more centrist” Democratic candidate for its nominee.

Though Tennessee State Chairman Randy Button is a bit more cautious about what he says about Mr. Dean, it’s clear he would prefer someone nearer the political center as the party’s standard-bearer.

“There are some areas and issues where Dean is not going to play well in the South, and other issues where he will play well,” he said. As for his antiwar position on Iraq, “it can cut both ways,” Mr. Button admitted. “Someone of more moderate thinking would play better in the South.”

Another Democratic state chairman in the Deep South told me that too many Dean positions are “too far to the left to carry our state. It’s very hard to sell higher taxes down here when people are struggling to make ends meet.”

The South has once again become the linchpin of Republican electoral power in presidential elections. It takes 270 electoral votes to win the White House. If President Bush were to sweep all 13 Southern and Border states next year, that would give him 169 votes — and that’s just for starters.

It is possible to win the White House without carrying a single state in the South, but it becomes a much steeper climb in a competitive election. Bill Clinton carried four Southern states in his elections in 1992 and 1996, although the former Arkansas governor would have won without any of them.

“It’s difficult to win the presidency without winning one or two Southern states, but I think it can be done,” said Arkansas Democratic Chairman Ron Oliver.

Perhaps so, if you have a nominee with the political skills of Bill Clinton, but that is rare. Mr. Clinton is the only Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to be elected to two terms.

There is another reason why many Southern Democrats say they fear the prospect of Mr. Dean at the top of their ticket — and it has nothing to do with the White House.

Four major Democratic senators have announced their retirement, all from Republican-leaning Southern states where Mr. Bush is popular: Bob Graham of Florida, Zell Miller of Georgia, John Edwards of North Carolina and Fritz Hollings of South Carolina.

If Democrats are going to hold on to any of these open seats, they will need a popular vote-getter at the top of their ticket who can blunt the power of Mr. Bush’s coattails in these states.

Mr. Dean’s Southern Democratic critics say he is not that man.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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