- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2003

For political bird watchers, the quadrennial presidential season enables the sightings of varieties of colorful political flying creatures. There is always the secret hope, of course, that a new species will be discovered, or even that a species considered lost will be found.

Political birds always seem to migrate into our presidential elections, and the 2004 season is no exception. The bird family of colombids includes pigeons and doves. Two species of this family, the dodo and the passenger pigeon, are famously extinct. The political colombids have predictably reappeared in the post-Afghanistan and post-Iraq debate in the Democratic Party; but alas, no new species has yet to be found among them.

Instead, we have the conventional populist/isolationist pigeons, and this year, a raptor (this bird family includes falcons and hawks), Howard Dean, flew into the coop of the other presidential hopefuls wearing the plumage of a pigeon. This has so far proved to be a crafty strategy, because it not only drew attention away from the other raptors, it also overshadowed the true pigeons, Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun — the ones who would normally attract many Democratic Party voters in the caucuses and primaries which determine the party nominee.

Mr. Kucinich, is now making his move before it is all over. The food of a political columbid is anti-war isolationism and class warfare rhetoric. Mr. Dean, who obviously has a talent for learning new political languages, has been adroitly attracting many populist voters with such rhetoric, even as the media were observing that the most authentic populist warbling was coming from Mr. Kucinich.

As part of a multi-city announcement tour, Mr. Kucinich flew into Minneapolis recently to rouse his faithful. A large crowd of 800 to 900 persons filled the auditorium of the inner-city high school, the alma mater of Jesse Ventura. Having attended rallies for the other candidates, I think it is safe to say that candidates John Kerry, Joseph Lieberman, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt or Wesley Clark would probably not be able at this stage to muster this large a crowd here. The reason is simple: The party activists want pigeons, not falcons. Only Mr. Dean has produced larger turnouts in Minnesota.

One might then say: “Oh well, it’s Minnesota,” indicating the assumption this was still the liberal state of the era of Herbert H. Humphrey and Walter Mondale. But the fact is that Minnesota has moved, in recent years, to the center-right — with a Republican governor, U.S. senator, state house and half its congressional delegation.

Furthermore, having narrowly lost the state to Al Gore in 2000, President Bush’s campaign has made this a battleground for his re-election, and many observers think the president may carry Minnesota in 2004.

So, what is the Kucinich campaign all about? He has drawn crowds at all the cities in which he has announced his candidacy, but his audience is made up primarily of Green Party activists, trying to avoid the charge of spoilers that was made against them by the Gore campaign in 2000 (for diverting critical votes from the Democratic ticket). At the Minneapolis rally, this was clearly the case, and reinforced by the fact that Winona LaDuke, Ralph Nader’s running mate, came to endorse Mr. Kucinich, and got the loudestapplause.ForMr. Kucinich’s part, he spoke pure class warfare, the very same kind which enabled him in his previous executive position — as mayor of Cleveland — to push the city into bankruptcy soon after he took office. (Museum curators take note, you may have found a political passenger pigeon.)

When the Democratic Party inevitably nominates a falcon, these populists will likely return to Mr. Nader and the Green Party in the general election. But it also shows the acuity of Mr. Dean’s strategy. Most of those at the Kucinich rally I talked to said that Dean was acceptable. With Mr. Clark, a retired general, now moving to co-opt the Democratic Leadership Council’s centrist program, it is unlikely that any of the other candidates would draw the populist-Green vote in 2004. If the election is ultimately competitive, the Democratic nominee will need these votes as much as in 2000. (At the same time, Mr. Dean, if nominated, will somehow have to find a credible way back to the center.)

The Democratic falcons are getting ready for the primary encounters ahead, when class warfare rhetoric will not be food enough. It will not be enough, because their common foe is also a raptor, but as the incumbent president, he is the most powerful raptor of all, an eagle.

Mr. Clark’s campaign, initially promising, is becoming more and more like Mr. Kerry’s — that is, muddled, as he tries to find his constituency and his political voice. Sniped at from the left and the right of his party, Mr. Dean is so far holding his own before the approaching barnyard showdown in the spring.

Barry Casselman has reported on and analyzed national politics since 1972.

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