- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2004

President Bush’s political strategists, who have been “war-gaming” against Howard Dean for weeks, have begun to prepare for the growing possibility that Mr. Dean might not win the Democratic nomination.

Although Bush officials still regard the former Vermont governor as the likely nominee, the race has become tight in Iowa and New Hampshire. That has led them to spend more time on contingency plans for the emergence of an alternative to Mr. Dean.

Those alternatives include Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts; Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri; Wesley Clark, the retired general from Arkansas; and to a lesser extent, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. The Bush campaign is not devoting significant energy to preparing for the nomination of Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, or the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Pentecostal pastor from Harlem.

“Maybe some of us said it was going to be Dean — I mean, everyone was crowning him king,” acknowledged a Bush campaign official. “And now the exact same pundits are knocking the crown off.

“But we have been among the very few observers of this process to say, ‘Look, it could still be anybody,’” the official said.

Dean spokesman Jay Carson insisted the Bush campaign “is obviously worried more about us, because they’ve been paying the most attention to us.”

Until recently, it appeared Mr. Dean would crush rivals in both Iowa and New Hampshire, effectively all but sewing up the nomination by next week. But now Bush strategists say the fight might continue until March 2, when numerous states hold primaries on what is dubbed “Super Tuesday.”

Not even the most ardent Bush supporters, however, are holding out much hope for their ultimate fantasy: a muddled Democratic primary struggle that extends through the spring and into the summer, ending in a contentious floor fight at the party’s national convention in July.

Still, Bush strategists pointed out that every day the Democrats continue to slog it out is another day the president can postpone his entry into the political fray. It’s a classic strategy for protecting an incumbent president, who ends up waging a sort-of stealth campaign by merely going through the motions of governing — which is to say, looking presidential.

Christine Iverson, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said although the Bush team must prepare for a variety of possible foes, Mr. Dean’s leftward pull on the field has simplified the task.

“They’re all Howard Dean now, as far as we’re concerned,” she said. “So from a preparation standpoint, it doesn’t really matter if it’s Howard Dean or Dick Gephardt or John Kerry or Wesley Clark — they’ve all moved to the left.

“You know, we’re prepared to run against whoever emerges,” she said. “In the meantime, we’re going to aggressively point out gaffes and inconsistencies and untruths about all of them.”

Mr. Dean’s gaffes are viewed as the main reason for his slide in the polls in recent weeks. As a result, Bush strategists disagree with pundits who say the person best positioned to emerge as the Dean alternative is Mr. Clark.

Campaign officials reason that if the Democratic Party balks at nominating Mr. Dean because of his propensity for gaffes, it will be loath to embrace Mr. Clark, whom Miss Iverson called “every bit as gaffe-prone as Howard Dean.”

That would leave Mr. Kerry and Mr. Gephardt, both of whom recently have polled well in Iowa. While Mr. Edwards’ popularity has surged to a lesser extent, his aversion to criticizing rivals in an increasingly acrimonious contest has positioned him for a possible spot on the Democratic ticket, perhaps as vice president.

One Republican source said the Democrats’ shifting positions have made war-gaming a bewildering exercise.

“This operation prides itself on preparing for any sort of contingency,” the source said. “But the funny thing about this primary is that the Democrats’ positions are changing so fast and so furious, it’s almost counterproductive to try to prepare.”

Still, the Bush campaign takes comfort in the fact that at least it does not have to prepare for the possibility of Mr. Bush facing a centrist Democrat, such as Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia or Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana.

“No matter who the nominee is, we’re guaranteed we’ll be running against someone who has moved so far to the left of the political spectrum in the primary process that they’re going to have a very hard time appealing to moderate voters when it comes to the general election,” Miss Iverson said.

In fact, when it comes to sizing up the president’s eventual opponent in the general election, the Bush campaign takes its cue from the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

“Like Terry McAuliffe,” Miss Iverson said, “we love them all equally.”

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