Dean's momentum builds

The front-runner goes to Washington, and instead of excoriating congressional "cockroaches," gets some big endorsements.

Published November 18, 2003 3:50PM (EST)

Howard Dean had just accepted his second significant endorsement of the evening Monday at the Capitol Brewery in Washington, and he was waiting for the beer-fueled crowd below him to stop cheering long enough for him to introduce another one. Across the bar, Joe Trippi, Dean's rumpled campaign manager, was clearly delighted with what he was seeing.

"This has just been a great day today," he shouted over the noise to a couple of reporters.

It was indeed another big day for the Dean campaign -- one of a series of big days since last week when Dean won the endorsement of two powerful unions and rejected the spending limits of public financing.

For one thing, Dean landed the endorsements of three more U.S. representatives, all members of ethnic minority groups, allowing him to tout his growing political strength while addressing what had been a perceived limitation of his campaign -- especially after comments he made about being the candidate for guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks. He scored political points with an increasingly powerful constituency as the only candidate to show up to speak before a group of Democratic Asian American leaders. And the campaign once again managed to exploit an occasion -- in this case, the candidate's birthday -- for fundraising solicitation on a massive scale, from a series of "house parties" across the country to the packed bar event in D.C.

What's more, the campaign demonstrated a continuing willingness to spend that money aggressively by unveiling a series of ads that criticize Rep. Dick Gephardt -- who currently holds a narrow lead over Dean in Iowa -- for voting to authorize President Bush to go to war in Iraq.

Earlier in the day, at an event in the ballroom of the Capitol Hilton just off K Street, Dean was addressing a Democratic group called the Asian American Action Fund. He had been late in arriving, but it hardly mattered: With John Kerry and John Edwards each spending the day stumping in Iowa, where they hope to place at least third, Gephardt down in South Carolina, and others in New Hampshire, Dean turned out to be the only candidate who accepted the group's invitation to come.

Flanked on stage by Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, and Reps. Mike Honda, D-Calif., and David Wu, D-Ore., he gave his usual stump speech, with his usual big applause lines. He criticized the Bush administration for its handling of Iraq, and for passing tax cuts before it spent money on healthcare, homeland security and education. On the PATRIOT Act and profiling of Arab-Americans after Sept. 11, 2001, an issue of particular importance to this audience, he angrily denounced the administration's tactics, likening them to America's internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

"Have we learned nothing?" he asked, as Honda, a former internee, nodded gravely.

Dean was also careful, as always, to qualify his criticisms of the administration on security issues, hoping to insulate himself from criticism that he would be a risk-averse weakling on defense: "I think my job as commander in chief of the United States military, should we be successful in November," he said, lowering his tone, "will be to send American troops anywhere in the world they're needed to protect America." But, he said, he'd never send them anywhere "without first telling them the truth about why they're going."

"I don't think this president understands defense at all," he continued, criticizing Bush for not spending enough money on terrorism prevention at home, for not securing loose nuclear sticks in the former Soviet Union and for "allowing" North Korea to become a nuclear power by pursuing a foreign policy "based on the petulance of the chief executive of the United States of America." And when he said that America had a strong military, he added his usual qualifier, "and I think that's a good thing."

He also acted like a presumptive primary winner, promising Wu a prime speaking slot at the Democratic convention if he endorsed him "by the end of this program, in which case he can have anything he wants."

Wu, the head of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, had just given a detailed explanation of why he and Honda had voted with George Bush on his educational reform, "No Child Left Behind," explaining that the administration subsequently failed to follow through on its promises.

Dean, plowing ahead with his speech, duly castigated "Bush-lite" Democrats who voted for the act. (This was the height of diplomacy compared to an earlier Dean comment in October, when he promised that if he were elected, members of Congress would be "scurrying for shelter, just like a giant flashlight on a bunch of cockroaches.")

But, typical of how things are going these days for the front-running Dean, what might have become a gaffe for a struggling candidate was politely ignored -- after he finished speaking, Wu returned to the microphone, wished Dean a happy birthday, and announced that he was deciding "right now" to endorse Dean. (The host group as a whole isn't yet ready to make an official endorsement, but their comments afterward may have provided a hint as to their leanings. "It's hard not to look at the significance of [Dean] coming to our event," said the group's executive director, Irene Bueno.)

By the time the night's event rolled around, Dean had collected another unexpected endorsement, that of Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who is the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. Standing up on a balcony in the lofty bar-restaurant, Cummings and others of Dean's endorsers stepped forward one by one to praise him and to excoriate Bush, while on the floor below, the new Dean coalition was in evidence as green-shirted union members of SEIU and red-shirted ones of UNITE, mostly minorities, mingled with the white-collar -- and largely white -- blogger-geeks, gay activists and post-graduate volunteers who have formed the campaign's core of support since the beginning.

As Cummings boomed his approval of Dean -- "ordinary man, extraordinary vision," he said -- Trippi spoke over the crowd noise to explain the campaign's efforts to keep up with the support that seems to be pouring in these days.

Talking about the event he had just come from, when Cummings endorsed Dean, Trippi said: "[Cummings] just asked if he could come up and say something and, Ka-Boom! We were like, 'Could you maybe come to the next event and say that again?'"

The next official to be introduced after Cummings was Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who became the first member of Congress to endorse Dean. She said that she saw the latest endorsements as the beginning of a flood of support going to the front-running Dean. "Today we started to see the crumblings," she said. "Today three more members of the House of Representatives said, 'We don't care -- we're going to endorse Howard Dean today.'" (Around this point a press aide turned to a reporter and, only half-kidding, asked, "Are you getting all of this excitement? Is there enough room on your pad?")

Meanwhile the next speaker, Rep. Jim Moran, not to be outdone on the level of Bush criticism, said that Bush's presidency "just makes you sick to your stomach."

When it was Dean's turn to talk, he leaned on the railing, sleeves rolled up to his biceps as usual, like a performer ready to launch into his routine. "You've all heard my stump speech before," he said, grinning broadly. "We're going to have some fun here at the president's expense." The crowd roared.

He went through the familiar litany of angry criticisms of the Bush administration, with the committed Dean-heads in the crowd anticipating every note but cheering like they were hearing it for the first time. "What middle-class tax cut?" Dean asked. "There was no middle-class tax cut! Give us our money back, Mr. President, so we can get our jobs back!" Another roar.

He also did his bit about healthcare -- unchanged since he started campaigning nearly a year ago -- ending with the now-familiar litany of places that have universal health insurance, running from Britain, Germany and Israel right through to his climax: "Even the Costa Ricans have it!"

At the end of the election, he said, "This time, the person with the most votes is going to the White House," he said, and talked triumphantly about amassing an army of small donors to "buy George Bush a one-way bus ticket back to Crawford, Texas." And that drew the biggest roar of the night.

But If Dean's supporters are already looking past the primary, they at least seem aware that a general election victory won't come quite as easily. Essentially, said one, beating President Bush would take a leap of faith. "There's an old native American quote: As you walk through life, you will come to a great divide," said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, another of Dean's congressional supporters. "Jump -- it's not as far as you think. This election is about jumping, because the divide to beat George W. Bush isn't as wide as we think it is."

By Josh Benson

Josh Benson is Salon's national correspondent.

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