The Dean machine rolls through the Big Apple

His supporters are all young and white, but in Bryant Park Tuesday the former governor's campaign felt like the real thing.

Published August 27, 2003 6:49PM (EDT)

Howard Dean's bash in Bryant Park last night makes an easy target. The New York City park was packed, but seemingly everyone there was white, under 30 and dressed for a Burlington, Vt., block party. A man selling tie-dyed shirts did brisk business, and the crowd of about 10,000 seemed oddly disconnected from the incredible mix of people and cultures walking New York's streets right nearby, many of whom must have wondered what was going on. Save for the ubiquitous blue signs, "Howard Dean for America," it would have been hard to know that Bryant Park was hosting a presidential candidate last night and not a Hootie and the Blowfish concert.

But even bearing that in mind, it was hard to leave the speech last night without thinking: Wow, this guy can actually win.

People may have initially been drawn to the doctor and former Vermont governor because he opposed a war that few other powerful people did. But Dean's antiwar stance offers little reason to support him now. Every candidate now criticizes Bush on the war, in particular eviscerating him for the way we got into it. Moreover, Dean is by no means a peace candidate. He methodically explained that he supported the first Gulf War and the obliteration of the Taliban. If elected president, he'd support more wars. Dean even told the audience that it could decide if he was a liberal or not (thus hinting that he'll soon say he isn't) and he dropped his trademark crowd-pleasing line, "I'm here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."

The reason 10,000 people gathered in Bryant Park -- and it's hard to imagine a tenth of that many gathering for any of the four candidates now serving in the Senate -- is because Dean looks and acts like a normal human being who just happens to be smart, well-informed and passionate about changing the political system. His establishment opponents, like Joe Lieberman and Dick Gephardt, often seem programmed or pulseless. His left-wing opposition, Dennis Kucinich, seems to have a heart rate of about 350 beats per minute.

Dean spoke cogently and confidently without notes. He only pandered a bit, and demagogued only a bit more. He ran on issues, not just a biography of having served in Vietnam or grown up the son of a mill worker. He drew big applause whenever he criticized Bush, but stayed well within the lines of political decorum and the ground rules he announced early on when he said, "We're going to have some fun tonight at the president's expense." More important, he added that the speech would be about what he was for: vastly expanded healthcare coverage, affirmative action, environmental protection, broadband access for rural communities, restoring the world's respect for America, and more.

Dean even took a shot at describing how he's going to win the South --- pointing out that Southern states have been electing Republicans for decades and then asking, "Tell me what you have to show for it?" That doesn't sound like a sure winner, but it's not bad. Previously, Dean has told a tale about a Southern World War II survivor who thanked him for Vermont's law allowing civil unions. That odd story was perhaps intended to show that one shouldn't put all Southerners in the same box, but it came across sounding like Dean intended to win South Carolina on the gay vet vote.

Dean is going to have to expand his core supporters, and he probably would have traded the crowd inside of Bryant Park for the one just outside of it: a collage of feisty New Yorkers walking the streets along with a smattering of businessmen peering down into the park from their midtown office windows. Dean is clearly aware of the problem: Last night, he said "When white people and brown people and black people vote together in this country, that's when we make social progress." But the former governor is hauling in money faster than a casino -- his campaign announced it expects to raise a staggering $10.3 million in the three-month period ending Sept. 30 -- is launching TV ads in six new states and has shown few signs of stumbling. There will no doubt be many more rallies, in many more parks, coming soon.

By Nicholas Thompson

Nicholas Thompson is a fellow with the New America Foundation. He lives in New York.

MORE FROM Nicholas Thompson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

George W. Bush Howard Dean Iraq War