Democratic candidate Howard Dean’s medical degree and opposition to the war in Iraq are attracting black politicians to his presidential campaign, even as analysts say he lacks the political network to win the black vote.
Among would-be black voters, Mr. Dean, a licensed internist, has an advantage over his Democratic rivals on health care issues, said David Bositis, chief researcher for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank specializing in issues of interest to blacks.
Health care has ranked high for several years in the center’s annual national poll of issues important to blacks, Mr. Bositis said.
“[The numbers have] been going up as health care issues have become bigger for the African-American community, with AIDS, diabetes, hypertension on the rise for the past four years,” he said, adding that Mr. Dean’s medical background made him a more credible candidate on health care issues among blacks.
Mr. Dean has proposed an ambitious program to expand government-run health care coverage for the uninsured.
Of even greater interest to black voters is the former Vermont governor’s staunch opposition to the Iraq war, said Rep. Major R. Owens, New York Democrat, who has endorsed Mr. Dean.
“His medical degree is a minor factor in my endorsing him, compared to his position on the war,” Mr. Owens said.
Among the nine Democrats running for the White House, Mr. Dean has been one of the harshest critics of the Bush administration’s policy on Iraq. He has accused the administration of exploiting the emotions of Americans after the September 11 attacks.
National polls have shown that blacks have opposed the war 4-to-1.
Although Mr. Dean’s antiwar position resonates with many blacks, several Democratic strategists have noted that he does not possess a nationwide network of state and local black elected officials needed to make major inroads in the community. In addition, they have pointed out that only .5 percent of Vermont’s population is black.
Still, Mr. Dean has attracted support from such black Democrats as Mr. Owens, Maryland state Delegates Curt Anderson of Baltimore and Ana Sol Gutierrez of Montgomery County, Connecticut state Rep. Annette Carter and D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty, and has actively sought to improve his appeal among black voters.
Mr. Dean “is the only one [of the Democratic candidates] who has come out to talk to us, and his campaign is energized,” said Mr. Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat.
Ten of the council’s 13 members endorsed Mr. Dean for the District’s first-in-the-nation primary. The District is 70 percent black and 90 percent Democratic.
During the endorsement news conference, Mr. Dean said he was the only white candidate willing to discuss race relations in an open forum.
“You know a lot of people ask me about why I don’t talk about race in front of black audiences. Well, that is because I figure blacks have heard all they need to about race. It is white people who need to hear about the plight of blacks and that is why I do talk about it when I am speaking to white audiences,” he said.
Donna Brazile, Al Gore’s 2000 campaign manager, said it is too early to tell which candidate blacks will come out for during the Democratic presidential primaries.
“The African-American vote, like much of the Democratic vote, is up for grabs. There is no way of gauging a candidate’s particular support outside of the endorsements, and all of the candidates have picked up at least one or two from the [Congressional] Black Caucus,” Miss Brazile said.
Mr. Bositis said Mr. Dean will have a hard time making deals with local and state black politicians to drum up support, unlike some of his rivals such as Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who have hundreds of local and state politicians on whom to draw.
Mr. Bositis said a problem confronting Mr. Dean is that “he has not been involved in black politics in his career.”
But Mr. Owens said Mr. Dean can discuss issues without being tied to a particular segment of the black community or getting involved in local and partisan battles — as opposed to some of the other candidates.
“Dean can start with a clean slate, but as I informed him, he will have to get out and talk with black elected officials throughout the nation,” Mr. Owens said.
“But I think health care will be an issue where he will pick up support,” he added.