- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

We are now days away from the first real voting in the 2004 Democratic caucuses and primaries, and the media air is suddenly full of doubts. Howard Dean, the latest in a half-century of unknown Democratic governors-who-become-nominees, seems poised to win it all in Boston. Pundits, consultants and strategists — most of whom did not see his candidacy coming — are trying to digest this unexpected outcome and desperately looking for some sign that it will somehow pass, as a bad dream does.

Unreliable polls remain volatile, especially in Iowa and New Hampshire, but Democratic voters are signalling (through fund raising and organization) that the much-lamented and prolonged political process of 2004 has revealed, at last, a standard bearer.

It is true that Mr. Dean’s emergence has provoked his rivals into much clearer focus than they were presenting, advised by their consultants and imagemakers, in the protracted early stages of the campaign. With the exception of John Edwards, all of Mr. Dean’s rivals are now furiously attacking him.

The question is not only “If not Dean, who?” The question is also “If not Dean, why?”

In order to defeat a candidacy that has mobilized so many supporters from zero, raised so much money from nothing and defined the issues of his party’s campaign against a field of candidates with much greater name recognition, experience and initial organization, more than an abstraction is required.

Joe Lieberman offers the greatest contrast with Mr. Dean. As the 2000 vice presidential nominee, and a popular one, he has high numbers in the national polls. As the true centrist in the race, he is the candidate most troubling to President Bush and his strategists — who know that the race in November is always a battle for the political center. But Mr. Lieberman has supported the war in Iraq and has questioned certain liberal shibboleths.

Never mind that his course is much the same one taken by Bill Clinton, the only truly successful national Democrat in the past five decades. The Democratic Party base will not vote for him in 2004.

John Kerry is the Ed Muskie and the John Glenn of 2004 — so much promised, so little delivered. He was the early frontrunner, but he did not ever focus on an issue or present an appealing personality. The war hero image does not work when the country is at war and the candidate is ambivalent about it.

Like Mr. Lieberman, Dick Gephardt stuck to his guns in support of the war effort. The most experienced candidate, he had led his party in the House with distinction, but his inevitable appeal to organized labor and opposition to NAFTA has made him sound like a long-playing record in a time when even the cassette has been replaced by the CD.

Mr. Edwards was thought by some to be the likely dark horse success in 2004. Articulate, attractive and a Southerner, he seemed like a good bet to emerge from a large field of albeit better known candidates. But until the very end, his message was blurred and unoriginal. Like most of his rivals, he sounded like someone from the Democrats’ past. His decision not to attack Mr. Dean, however, may result in his being chosen the vice presidential candidate.

Gen. Wesley Clark came in late after much anticipation in the media. Mr. Clark was not only a military figure, but a southerner as well. His primary appeal, then and now, is that he is a commanding general who is critical of the war in Iraq. Most of his supporters know relatively little about him, but they know they don’t like this war, and as a general ,he gives their dislike respectability. Initially awkward with the media and unclear on the issues, Mr. Clark missed his best opportunity.

His intelligence has enabled him to learn the ropes quickly, and his recent fund raising is impressive, but he has avoided specifics on the issues and he remains a complaining general running against a popular commander in chief.

It is the war that has tripped up the Democrats. World Wars I and II were successfully managed by Democratic presidents, but strategic wars in Korea and Vietnam were not successful, and Democratic presidents and voters were disillusioned by them. The Gulf War was a quick triumph, but improperly concluded, and Bill Clinton defeated an incumbent GOP president who only months before had been immensely popular. The military actions that followed September 11, however, have had wide support in the country.

Embittered by the electoral controversy in 2000, many Democrats have allowed the war against terrorism to be embodied by Mr. Bush. These voters continue to ignore the self-defensive nature of our military actions, something which is accepted by a majority of Americans.

It should not surprise us that these angry Democrats would want as their nominee in 2004 the only candidate who clearly opposed our going into in Iraq. As his Democratic rivals attack him relentlessly, Mr. Dean remains angrily defiant. This is what most Democrats apparently want in 2004, and, whether for success or failure (and barring a sudden cataclysm), they shall have him.

Barry Casselman has reported on and analyzed national politics since 1976.

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