Convincing New Hampshire

Dean's getting his message across to the state's media -- but are voters paying attention?

Published November 22, 2003 12:34AM (EST)

Throughout this campaign, Howard Dean has been remarkably effective in drawing attention to himself through his varied but consistent criticisms of the administration of President George W. Bush. The last several days have been no exception. Here, for example, are some of the headlines that the former Vermont governor generated in the New Hampshire dailies on Friday morning:

Dean Denounces Bush's Federal Court Nominees (Nashua Telegraph)

Dean: Don't Pay Off Bush's Credit Card (Concord Monitor)

Dean Raps Bush on Taxes, Energy Bill (Union Leader)

Dean Blasts MTBE Portion of Energy Bill (AP, New Hampshire)

He's got the media's attention. With the state's key primary election a little more than two months away, and New Hampshire voters already being subjected to multiple visits from the Democratic candidates and wall-to-wall political ads, the trick is getting the voters to listen.

Dean's audiences of nominally undecided voters during his latest swing through the state were generally positive, but they bore little resemblance to the adoring and raucously supportive crowds that met him elsewhere in recent days. Some potential voters who showed up at a town hall-style meeting at Salem High School Thursday night certainly remained unconvinced.

He went through his normal stump speech, listing his policy priorities and making multiple allusions to buying "a one-way ticket back to Crawford, Texas," for President Bush. During a question-and-answer session afterward, one woman who said she was a "lifelong" Democrat asked him if, with his uncompromising rhetoric, he could get anything done with Republicans in Washington.

His answer was that Democrats don't have to "cozy up to Republicans," and that since the GOP was primarily responsible for the intense partisanship in contemporary Washington, "whether or not we make peace with Republicans is up to them."

To Washington insiders, that may seem to be naiveté born of inexperience. His Democratic opponents have sought to portray him as unelectable against Bush, and have been increasingly aggressive in calling into doubt his governing credentials: John Kerry recently pointed out in a Boston Globe interview that Dean's state of Vermont "has a $1 billion budget, 700,000 people, one congressional district."

But during a swing through New Hampshire, he kept up the barrage of attacks against Bush and also continued to hammer at two crucial themes: his executive experience -- much of his specific policy proposals are based upon programs he oversaw when he was governor of Vermont -- and his viability as a general election candidate.

Dean himself says that such strong, clearly articulated positions are what sets his campaign apart from his competitors'. Dean attributes his committed following -- he said that it was more a "movement" than a campaign -- to what he considers to be his unique position among the top Democratic candidates as a consistent defender of his convictions. As he shook hands with some of the attendees after the event, he argued the point with a Clark supporter who had come over to congratulate Dean for an "awesome" speech. "The Clark people love you -- we're ready to come aboard when the time is right," said the supporter. "But Clark's record -- in his vast majority of statements he's been against the war. Do you acknowledge that?"

The smile vanished from Dean's face. "But in the beginning, he was for the war, and he's got to acknowledge that," the candidate said. "He told Katrina Swett, D-N.H., to vote for the resolution, and she corroborated that again this year. He wrote that we should go in on Feb. 10 of 2003 -- he said we're poised, we're ready to go in, the world should get ready because we're going to do it. He's got to explain those statements ... He can't just deny he said it."

The Clark supporter nodded.

"Look, NAFTA and the WTO are very unpopular," continued Dean. "I supported them. I always announced that, look, here's where I was then, and here's where I am now -- that I switched my position. I don't have a problem with that. So my concern with Wes is that if he said, Look, I told Katrina Swett to support the resolution but I really think that that was the wrong thing to do ... that's one thing. But you can't just insist you didn't do something which was corroborated by the person who you gave the advice to."

Earlier that day, at a "youth forum" in Salem sponsored by USA Today, Dean talked to a group of high school students, and did a question-and-answer session that followed the familiar pattern: question, response criticizing Bush administration policy, proposal for an alternative. ("Having blasted the president, let me now tell you what I think we ought to do," he said in his answer to a question about the rising costs of college tuition.)

At that event, the interest in Dean's campaign was further evidenced when the traveling media contingent was joined by Biff Henderson, the famous sidekick of David Letterman from "The Late Show."

Standing among the bulk of the political press off to the side of the studio, he waited until Dean started responding to one student's question about global warming. Then, using the gesticulating candidate as a backdrop, Biff went back into newsman mode: "Governor Dean's giving a speech I already heard," he said, looking directly into the camera, "so I'm grabbing a beer with the carrot." (Don't ask.)

The next day, Dean gave a speech that was mostly new to the press, proposing a specific budget for early childhood and parenting programs. The main point of the proposal was to provide federal money for locally run programs that would offer preschool to 4-year-olds, expand child care and double the capacity of the Head Start program.

After the presentation, he was asked to respond to a new ad from the Republican National Committee that was, essentially, a response to attacks on Bush from the Democratic candidates. "The president spent 30 months destroying our ability to defend ourselves," he said. "I don't think a 30-second ad is going to convince people otherwise." The ad will feature a clip of the president saying that "the war against terror is a contest of will, in which perseverance is power." On the screen, these words appear: "Some are now attacking the president for attacking the terrorists."

Asked if he wouldn't be seen in a general election as too liberal on gay rights and other issues, Dean said: "I'm going to make this argument, which of course is completely self-serving, that I'm probably the only candidate who can beat George Bush, and I'll tell you why. I'm the only candidate that's bringing large numbers of people into the Democratic Party. We're not going to beat George Bush with the same old electorate that elected George Bush, minus 500,000 votes, last time. He'd have the advantage of another $100 million [in campaign funds] and the incumbency. The only chance that we have is to bring new people into the Democratic Party, and we're going to do that."

Of course, one only has to get away briefly from the campaign events to see that any of the Democrats is going to have a lot more work to do once a nominee is chosen.

David Berthiaume, a Manchester taxi driver, has not been to any candidate's events. He hasn't paid much attention to the race -- he said he turns off the television when political ads come on -- and he says that most of his friends aren't particularly focused on the race either.

On the afternoon of Nov. 21, on a ride to Manchester Airport, here's what he told a nosy reporter in the back seat: "I'll tell you where my vote's going: to our president. I'm not a Republican, I'm an Independent. And I'm pro-choice. But I think he's done a good job, and so does at least 51 percent of the country. Fine, he might have been misled about Iraq, but it needed to happen anyway. We kicked Saddam in the teeth, and now he's gone. We should all be happy about that."

By Josh Benson

Josh Benson is Salon's national correspondent.

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