Is Dean stoppable?

Every candidate has a winning scenario -- but six weeks before the first vote, Dean looks invincible. What are the odds anybody can beat him?

By Josh Benson
Published December 5, 2003 9:44PM (EST)

Mario Cuomo, who once kept an entire nation guessing about his own presidential aspirations, isn't interested in making predictions about the upcoming Democratic primary.

"All anyone wants to talk about is who's going to win," said Cuomo. "What Democrats should be talking about is who should win." Pushed further, though, Cuomo makes it clear that he is not just tired of the pundits, but of what they all seem to be saying: that Howard Dean has got it locked up.

"If you're talking about insiders -- people who talk about this stuff, study it, go give speeches -- if I make 15 calls to those people today and get 30 scenarios from them, they'll all be the same. Dean's going to win because ..." Cuomo says. "This other guy is failing because ... Nobody talks about the substance. I've gotten calls from a couple of people who I respect very highly for their intelligence and credibility. Both were with different candidates and said to me, 'You've got to go with Dean.' Why? 'Because he's going to win.' Why? 'Because he has people excited. Because he has money. Because he has a lock in the polls in New Hampshire. Because he has two big unions, he has the kids, the Internet loves him, because he came out early against the war.' That's all fine. But should he win?"

But Cuomo's soul-searching seems almost quaint in the current climate. The constant book-making on the race now seems premised on the idea that Dean is a virtual shoo-in. That his strong showing in the polls in key primary states, his fundraising advantages and his growing support from key players have put him in a dominant position, and this year's rapid-fire primary calendar won't afford the rest of the field any chance to catch up to him.

But supporters of Dean's competitors -- not to mention the candidates themselves -- can of course still explain the intricate scenarios that lead to a different ending, whether it's Rep. Dick Gephardt (Iowa as springboard to rest of states), Sen. John Kerry (surprise showing in Iowa, resurgence in New Hampshire), Sen. John Edwards (strong non-first-place finishes in the first two contests followed by wins in the South) or Wesley Clark (same as Edwards minus Iowa, where he is not competing). And they certainly aren't convinced that it's all over with six weeks to go.

Still, at the moment almost every indicator is good for Dean. Public polls show Dean neck-and-neck with Gephardt in Iowa, where he has already undermined a pillar of the former House leader's Midwest support with the backing of two major service unions, and where he is outspending Gephardt by nearly 3 to 1 on television ads. In the other election-defining early contest, the first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire, Dean now leads early favorite John Kerry in some polls by an incredible 30 points.

And Dean has translated that popular appeal into a massive fundraising advantage, one that only promises to grow in the coming weeks. On Dec. 8, for example, Dean will be coming to New York for a series of fundraisers that aides privately say they expect will net him $2 million, a record haul for a Democrat. (Bush, of course, has raised twice as much at a single fundraiser.) Thanks in large part to Internet contributions, the campaign is amassing money at a rate that is allowing Dean to outspend opponents in the early states and still have enough to air ads in subsequent contests.

In addition, he has continued to attract the biggest crowds at his public events, where observers are increasingly likely to see Dean accompanied by elected Democrats who have endorsed him. (Yes, the same officials he spent most of his campaigning vilifying for not "standing up to George Bush.")

Although things can change quickly in any contest, these advantages are only likely to be compounded because of the way the primaries were restructured for this campaign. In an effort to spare the eventual candidate -- and party -- a drawn-out and expensive primary battle, the Democratic National Committee moved many of the primary dates forward, with the result that early stragglers will have little time to recover, allowing the candidate who dominates early to potentially blitz to victory. (For the first time, there will be seven states holding contests a week after New Hampshire, followed by six more the week after that.)

Given that, a growing number of politicos regard the various victory scenarios of the other candidates as almost too far-fetched to consider. And some of those political experts still willing (when pressed) to entertain them, seem to do so halfheartedly.

"I don't know if I believe this can actually happen," said Democratic consultant Tom Ochs, "but this would be the Doomsday scenario: Gephardt wins Iowa, and then maybe Dean wins in New Hampshire, but by less than the margin that polls predicted pre-Iowa, and that would be seen as him losing momentum. Then somehow maybe Edwards or Kerry survives by finishing third or second in the first two states. Then Dean finishes second in a bunch of places on Feb. 3, so he ends up out of the money in South Carolina, second to Clark in Arizona, and Gephardt wins Missouri and Washington state. So after three rounds, the only place Dean will have won is New Hampshire.

"So then a view might emerge that the wheels are coming off," he continued, "and the powers that be will decide that one of the other candidates can beat Dean -- maybe Edwards or Clark after they win South Carolina -- and then a strong other-than-Dean candidate emerges. Then the party's money and institutional forces coalesce around that one candidate, and other candidates drop out and don't endorse Dean because they all hate him. Then in the next round, this other candidate -- maybe Gephardt or Edwards or Clark -- maybe this candidate can win some other big state against Dean."

But, said Ochs, "for any of that to happen, it would take some unbelievable campaigning from one of these candidates, which, by the way, none of them have managed so far. And it would take some organization by this monolithic Democratic Party machine, which can't even get themselves arrested. And it would take some bad breaks for Dean. For better or worse, Dean is the only story right now. That, and how shitty the other campaigns have been."

Other politicos asked to game out the other-than-Dean scenarios were similarly skeptical.

"Everyone's got their 'How I Take the Oath of Office' scenario," said Marist College Institute pollster Lee Miringoff. "At this point, most of them are based on Dean stumbling, saying or doing something that puts a lid on him. If we game it out, it would take a win by Gephardt in Iowa and perhaps a close race in New Hampshire, so Dean doesn't win outright. That's the only way to kill his air of inevitability, and stop the Dean juggernaut from flying through the early rounds."

"The problem with that scenario," said Miringoff, "is that the more non-Dean folks who stay around, the better Dean is likely to do in the post-New Hampshire climate. The worst thing that can happen for Dean is to have a clear challenger. Either Dean has to falter early or people like Gephardt and Kerry have to disappear very fast." He paused for a moment. "But then," he said, "if Dean knocks them out clean after the first two rounds, it's going to be very hard for anyone to stop him at that point, because there will be two big nights with balloons and everyone rallying to the front-runner.

"Maybe if Gephardt loses in Iowa and disappears, then Dean narrowly beats Kerry, but Kerry hangs in. Maybe then that opens something up for Clark in the next round. But these scenarios are only credible to the degree that a lot of Democratic voters are still undecided."

Of course, political mavens like Miringoff invariably caution that no one has actually voted yet, and that the first contest is still six weeks away. They also point out, correctly, that there have already been a number of major shifts in the campaign that even the most experienced of politicos didn't see coming. The rise of Howard Dean, of course, and the corresponding phenomenon of Internet fundraising, present obvious examples. Few people at the time had foreseen the rapidity with which support for the war in Iraq would become a political liability, or measured correctly the depth of anger toward the president among Democratic voters.

But it was surely in the knowledge of how fast things could change that Dean went around to major donors months ago, when he was still just a curiosity -- a small-state, pro-gun, deficit-hawk Democrat who didn't even register in the polls -- and told them with a straight face that they'd do well to get onboard before his campaign really took off.

In other words, all the odds-making "experts" were wrong before. And it is the possibility of another unexpected upending of the political order that allows the other candidates to hold out hope for a reversal of fortune that goes their way.

They suggest, for example, that the mercurial Dean could melt under the pressure of being the front-runner, both from tighter scrutiny by the media -- witness the recent attention over his refusal to make public his gubernatorial papers -- and from stepped-up attacks by his opponents. They note, correctly, that expectations for Dean are now sky-high, and they express hope that a failure to meet them could rob him of his impressive momentum.

And they can each envision the way in which the pieces will fall into place.

Kerry, for example, thinks a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses will revive his hopes in New Hampshire, invoking his own history as a "strong closer" in anticipation of a come-from-behind win this time. Gephardt is staking everything on a big win in Iowa to carry him to victory elsewhere. Edwards is counting on strong second- or third-place showings in the first two contests to propel him to wins in Southern states like South Carolina.

And then there's Wesley Clark, who had a late and uncertain start to his campaign, but who has shown better form of late. These days, the retired general discusses his prospects somewhat more realistically than earlier in the campaign (when he made the mistake of referring to himself in front of reporters as "the front-runner"), but with a conviction that suggests little regard for the Dean inevitability argument.

At a Dec. 4 fundraiser at a nightclub in Washington, Clark said, "I saw the headlines today," referring to a Washington Post story about Dean beginning to lock up institutional support. "I read it and I know there's a lot of talking out there. So you know, here's the word: I never pay attention to polls" -- [pause] -- "unless they're favorable." Laughter and applause.

"Now I woke up this morning and got my first piece of good news," he continued. "The first piece of good news was, they did a poll in Florida. Not in New Hampshire -- in Florida. They asked Democrats who would be most likely to beat George W Bush. Twenty-two percent of the people said Dean. The other candidates were in single digits." Another pause. "I got 58 percent." Huge whoops, applause and "Clark" chants.

He went on to describe an improved showing in polls in New Hampshire, where, he said, polls showed him six weeks ago at about 4 percent, but where a recent ABC News poll now has him "in a statistical dead heat with John Kerry for second place."

"Let me use one of my favorite analogies. You're on an aircraft carrier ..." Laughter at his reference to President Bush's "Top Gun" landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln back in May. "OK, but in this case, you didn't land on it wearing a flight suit." More laughter. "Except you're in my campaign plane. You're in a plane. You're getting ready to take off, OK? You're on the catapult. You turn on the engines ... You burn the afterburners, and then on the 'go' signal, that plane is released from the catapult. It springs off deck. You know, everybody knows, what every plane does when it's launched from any aircraft carrier. It sort of sags a little bit, right? OK, so we've been through the sag. And we're going this way."

And with his hand he made a motion going up, up, up.

Josh Benson

Josh Benson is Salon's national correspondent.

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2004 Elections Howard Dean