- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2003

Let’s cut to the political chase. The race for the 2004 Democratic nomination for president is almost over. Some might find this assertion astounding, considering that the race has only seemed to have begun — and it is only the week after Labor Day, 2003.

The reason I am suggesting that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is on the cusp of victory is not based on polls or money. He is doing well in both of these, but they are transitory phenomena, the latter especially in an environment in which the Democrats are taking public financing, and the Republicans are not. Nor is it that Mr. Dean is such a sensational candidate with the brilliance, charm and resilience of Bill Clinton circa 1992. Mr. Dean is smart, a good speaker and resourceful, but he has not yet demonstrated he is truly extraordinary.

On the other hand, Mr. Dean has succeeded brilliantly in a vital phase of the contest for his party’s nomination. First, in spite of a moderate’s record as governor of Vermont, Mr. Dean and his strategists understood better than his opponents that the key to winning in 2004 in a field of reasonably well-known and politically experienced rivals was to go premeditatively to the party’s liberal populist base. This base is decisive in primaries in the Northeast, Midwest and Far West. This calculation also presumes that the contest will be essentially over by the time the Democrats get to the southern primaries.

Mr. Dean’s rhetoric has been devised to appeal to Wellstonian Democrats who speak the combative language of class warfare. Either their records or their temperaments preclude his serious rivals from speaking this language credibly. In spite of his past NRA support, being for the death penalty, NAFTA, balancing the budget, and for all our recent military actions except for Iraq, Mr. Dean — unknown to Democrats outside of Vermont — has been able to focus grass-roots Democratic hatred for Mr. Bush and his policies to his campaign. I suspect that only a small number of Mr. Dean’s supporters agree with, or even know about, his past stands on guns, the death penalty, NAFTA and spending. Most importantly at this point, even if they did, it would not matter. The Democratic Party base has bonded with Mr. Dean.

The key to Mr. Dean’s dominant position now is not polls, money or even momentum. His enormous advantage is organization. Beginning in the Northeast, followed by Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, California and the West Coast, solid grass- roots organizations have appeared for Howard Dean. Now, these organizations are operating in every state. If anyone doubts this, look on the Internet.

Mr. Dean has caught his rivals by surprise. Although all of the candidates have been on the stump for months, none of them has seemed to believe that one of them might be so well organized, and so appealing to the party base, that when the race was conventionally supposed to begin — after Labor Day — that there would be little if anything that could be done to prevent Mr. Dean’s nomination.

A few caveats are in order. The economy, already showing unmistakeable signs of recovery, could somehow go back downward. Terrorist events could contribute to this. The international situation — particularly in Iraq, Afghanistan or North Korea, could dramatically deteriorate. A new global hot spot, now unknown, could appear. Mr. Dean could make a horrific mistake, or say something indelibly dumb. Finally, some scandal in Mr. Dean’s past could be revealed. None of these are likely, but they could happen.

Some are suggesting that a new candidate in the field will rescue the Democrats. But only two persons seem able to enter at this late date. One is Gen. Wesley Clark. Gen. Clark’s candidacy, however, is probably wishful thinking. He has only this week admitted he is a Democrat. (Gen. Eisenhower said he was a Republican only in 1952, but then I don’t know anyone who suggests that Gen. Clark has anything of the personality of Ike.) The other late entrant could be Sen. Hillary Clinton. I don’t think Mrs. Clinton and her advisers, however, are among those who are seriously considering this. Yes, she leads in all the polls. Yes, she has a serious following among Democrats. But assuming she got into the race and won the nomination, think of the impact this would have on the populist base now supporting Mr. Dean. Ralph Nader would then likely get twice the vote in 2004 than he received in 2000, and lots of blue-collar independents (most of whom still see Mrs. Clinton as the too-liberal wife of Bill) would be lost to Bush.

A race between President Bush and Mr. Dean is another discussion. But I think it’s time to think about it seriously.

Barry Casselman is a free-lance political writer.

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