- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2004

As Howard Dean consolidates his lead in primary states, his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination are dropping their gloves. In all-out efforts to make up ground lost to the former Vermont governor, his fellow Democrats are now trying to convince the Democratic rank and file that Mr. Dean is unelectable — and that if elected he would be a disaster as president. This kind of demolition job is a sign of desperation, and it is unlikely to work.

On Monday, Sen. Joe Lieberman said that the frontrunner will “melt in a minute once the Republicans start going after him.” Sen. John Kerry is using an even sharper sword. “Two roads have diverged in the New Hampshire woods,” he said over the weekend. “One of them takes us toward retreat from our responsibility in the world, our responsibility to working families, our responsibility to talk straight to the American people — and our obligation to win their confidence and their votes next November.”

Despite the feigned confidence of these attacks, Mr. Dean has nothing to learn from the two senators — and he might even consider it ironic that these two lackluster candidates are saying that he can’t win. Despite being the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee in 2000 — which should have given him a head start against rivals who were unknown nationally — Mr. Lieberman is in single digits in most states. While Mr. Dean has catapulted himself from the back to the front of the field, Mr. Lieberman has done the exact opposite. Mr. Kerry has not even been able to lock up a lead in his home state of Massachusetts, where he and Mr. Dean are in a statistical dead heat — with the Vermonter edging out the native son.

Those chasing Mr. Dean have themselves to blame for their situation. His surge — which occurred during the bleakest period of postwar Iraqi reconstruction — took advantage of voter fears of a potential quagmire. After the capture of Saddam Hussein, the Dean foundation — built partly on sand — could have been attacked if anyone had been in a position to do so. Mr. Kerry initially voted for the war but backtracked to keep pace with Mr. Dean’s popular antiwar stance. Had Mr. Kerry stuck to his original pro-war stance through the spring and summer, he would now be poised to take on the frontrunner for his policy and personal excesses. Instead, the senator’s flip-flop on the war has left him with no credibility for criticizing Mr. Dean. While Mr. Lieberman kept his integrity on the war issue by steadfastly supporting President Bush, the senator has simply been too conservative on a range of issues to appeal to the liberal Democratic primary electorate.

No doubt, the sense of desperation has increased because inevitable also-rans hear the clock ticking — and see sources of campaign funds drying up. In the fourth quarter, Mr. Dean has raised more than $14 million, while Rep. Dick Gephardt has only taken in a little over $3 million and Mr. Kerry less than $4 million. Sen. John Edwards and Mr. Lieberman won’t comment on how little they have raised, because doing so would expose the fact that their efforts are on life support. Only former Gen. Wesley Clark is close, but his poll numbers don’t suggest a threat to the frontrunner.

Last-ditch demolition tactics are not healthy for a party that already faces a popular wartime incumbent. Bitter division among loyalists can hurt get-out-the-vote drives when the party needs to unify behind the eventual nominee before the election. On Sunday, Mr. Dean suggested that Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe should call off the intraparty attacks — a move that the other candidates said exposed his inability to take the heat. But it also might have been a clever move by the frontrunner, as it reminded primary voters that he is not part of the party establishment responsible for the embarrassing losses in the 2002 midterm elections. Such shrewd moves show why he is ahead of the pack. He is simply a more skilled campaigner. That his opponents are running inept campaigns helps.

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