Why Dean needs to win big now

If the former Vermont governor doesn't overwhelm his opponents in Iowa and New Hampshire, some analysts say, he may face a long, draining campaign fight.

By Josh Benson

Published January 9, 2004 1:21AM (EST)

With the first contest of the Democratic primary season just 10 days away, Howard Dean is in a commanding position. He appears to be the front-runner in Iowa, though perhaps by a narrow margin, and he's all but certain to win the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 27. He's raised the most money, has the most volunteers and has won a string of big-name and big-union endorsements.

But concealed in this optimistic picture is a doomsday scenario that is shaping every serious Democratic campaign: If Dean does not win the January contests with a show of force, by convincing margins, then even a victory could count as a loss.

According to variants of this scenario, the former Vermont governor would go into the Feb. 3 contests weakened, having failed to live up to high expectations. He would be running then in states like South Carolina, Oklahoma and Arizona where conservative Democrats, buoyed by new hope of success, may fare better. Facing tougher competition, he would have to spend more. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, would remain at war with itself.

Dean's campaign staffers might not talk about it, but the plan to counteract that scenario is plain: Their best hope is to overwhelm all opposition by the end of January with an unequivocal show of strength, demonstrating that their candidate can't be beaten and that opposition is essentially futile. And the fixation on an early, emphatic win is more than mere chest-pounding. It represents a realization that a quick victory may be essential for Dean if he is to have the resources to compete in the general election, and if he is to unify the Democratic establishment behind him after a year of campaigning against it.

"The best thing ... would be for him to win big and to win quickly," said New York Rep. Eliot Engel, a supporter of Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. "There are lots of things that many people in the party still don't like about him -- he looks smug, and his prospects for electability in November are worrying. But perhaps if he wins decisively and early, it will give him time to solidify his candidacy, and time for the party to come together."

Ethan Geto, Dean's New York campaign manager, may not like how Engel characterizes the front-runner, but he agrees with the strategic vision. "It's very important when he becomes the presumptive nominee," Geto said in an interview this week. "Should he win this sooner rather than later, I think the momentum of an early victory would galvanize a tremendous rallying around him."

Of course, until the caucuses convene and the voting begins, it's impossible to predict how rapidly a winner will emerge. And no matter how many opinion-makers declare the race over before it begins, there's no chance that the other candidates are simply going to oblige by clearing the field. In many regards, some analysts say, the campaigns in New Hampshire and Iowa feature nine candidates: Dean and eight others trying to emerge as the single Dean alternative.

Any candidate who performs better than expected in Iowa and New Hampshire, without necessarily finishing first in either contest, will try to parlay that into actual victories in the next round. And a number of the candidates -- notably Wesley Clark, who has raised more money since entering the race than anyone except Dean and could therefore have the means to stay afloat in a protracted battle -- could make the primary much more competitive by winning one or more of the six contests on Feb. 3.

Clark's strategy has all but yielded January to Dean. He's skipping Iowa altogether, and hoping that a strong showing in New Hampshire will propel him to victories in early February.

The stakes in the early contests, both for Dean and for his opponents, are apparent in the amount of resources being expended in Iowa. The campaigns of Dean and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry -- neither of which are abiding by the voluntary spending limits required to receive public funds -- are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars a week on ads there, well beyond the amount spent in any previous Democratic contest in the Hawkeye state. It's the same story for Rep. Dick Gephardt, who is staking his campaign on a win in Iowa, and for North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. At the same time, each campaign is also investing heavily in organization.

This unprecedented level of participation of four free-spending candidates, along with the inherent vagaries of a caucus process that is notoriously difficult to poll ahead of time, make an Iowa result particularly hard to predict. Clark skipped the state because of his late entry into the race and to preserve his funds; instead, he's betting heavily on Feb. 3. Like Dean, he's proven that he, too, can raise large sums of money, and he's made great gains in national polls. A Clark campaign pollster told reporters on a conference call Wednesday that the retired general was particularly well-positioned against Dean in the key Feb. 3 states of South Carolina and Oklahoma. Lieberman likewise has chosen to skip Iowa to conserve resources, and is already spending heavily on the early February races.

The risk for Dean is that if Clark, or any other candidate, emerged as a winner from Feb. 3, the other candidates would coalesce around him, due to a split in the party that increasingly looks like Dean vs. every other candidate. And that goes a long way toward explaining the fierce campaigning this month that has turned Democrat against Democrat.

After months of absorbing attacks from Dean -- and with time running out to catch up -- Dean's opponents have stepped up their attacks, doubting whether he can parlay opposition to the Iraq War into a defeat of Bush, questioning his security credentials, attacking his proposal to repeal the entire Bush tax cut and shaking their heads over what they see as his propensity for putting his foot in his mouth.

"I fear that the American people will wonder if they will be safer with him as president," Lieberman said recently.

Bush supporters make little secret of their delight in the Democratic bloodletting. And even some Democratic veterans who've been through combative primary campaigns say the level of disagreement is extraordinary. "I've never seen such acrimony in a campaign like this," says Jerry Austin, an Ohio-based consultant who ran Jesse Jackson's insurgent presidential campaign in 1988. "Part of the problem is simply Dean's mouth -- he keeps saying stupid things that come back to haunt him. But some of the criticism from his opponents is really like hatred."

Dean hasn't exactly discouraged those attacks. Throughout the campaign, Dean has made the Democratic establishment, which lost miserably in the 2002 election, into the villain, and he has continued to heap scorn on party leaders long after he moved into the front-runner's position. In the last few weeks, Dean went after Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe, blaming him for failing to intervene with other campaigns to stop the attacks. He implicitly criticized Bill Clinton's legacy of centrism in a speech, and continued to slam his nemeses in the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, mocking them as the Republican wing of the Democratic Party.

"They're clearly banking on strength being the unifying factor here," said a Democratic strategist. "It's one thing for them not to be reaching out to some of the party leaders in Washington; it's another to be badmouthing Terry McAuliffe, Bill Clinton and the DLC in the final two weeks of December. It doesn't look like they're going in the direction of diplomacy."

But perhaps with an eye toward the long road ahead, he seems to be trying to moderate his blunt-spoken style -- at least when it comes to his fellow Democrats. After criticizing McAuliffe, he phoned to apologize. And at the debate in Iowa last Sunday, he maintained his composure despite heated assaults from the other candidates on stage. (At one point in the debate, Dean asked which of the other candidates would support the party's nominee, whoever that turned out to be. As Dean grinned, all of the others raised their hands, somewhat unenthusiastically.) In a front-page story on Tuesday, the Washington Post detailed Dean's efforts to moderate his style so that he could better reach out to his opponents within the party. "We'll treat everybody with respect if I win," Dean was quoted as saying at a stop in Iowa.

Still, there is some evidence that strength is effective, even if it ruffles some feathers. Dean certainly hasn't lacked for confidence about the outcome of the primary, openly attributing the attacks against him to desperation.

And though he's likened members of Congress to light-averse cockroaches, he has received a virtual avalanche of support from that group of officials: Since early winter, his support has grown from a small handful to 30 members of the House and Senate, a total second only to Gephardt. According to a tally by ABC's The Note, Dean has taken a commanding lead in convention super-delegates, who are comprised of party officials and rank-and-file. And he received the endorsement on Jan. 6 of former U.S. senator and presidential candidate Bill Bradley, to go along with his support from former Vice President Al Gore.

The sense is that, by the very nature of politics, relations will be repaired after the nomination fight is settled. But such an approach can be polarizing.

Some conservative Democrats, disenchanted with the current campaign, are leaving the party. Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas this week defected to the GOP, in part, he said, because he disagreed with "all these guys running against the president." Retiring U.S. Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia used Dean's success as an opportunity to cast himself as the tragic voice of the party's disappearing conservative wing. In a Jan. 5 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Miller complained that Dean was "so cocky," and he panned McAuliffe -- whom he mocked as "Terry McAwful" -- for creating the system that allowed the dire events to unfold. "There hasn't been a leader since Julius Caesar who's had more conspirators pretending to be his friend -- but really wanting him dead -- than suddenly Howard Dean has today," Miller wrote.

Austin, the Ohio-based political consultant, was asked whether the divisions could be healed. "People will always come together behind the nominee," he said. "The question is, with what kind of commitment." (Austin is unaffiliated with any of the campaigns, but said that he would vote for Clark if his state's primary were held today.)

McAuliffe, a professional optimist, had an assessment that was somewhat more upbeat about the party's prospects. (Characteristically, he began a phone interview for this article by saying, "I'm doing great today. Bush is gone!") The level of divisiveness in this primary was merely "average," he said, despite Dean's complaints of a week ago, and blamed the 24-hour cable-and-Internet news cycle for blowing up minor disagreements into major ones. He also said that whatever the level of vitriol directed at the front-runner, it certainly wasn't anything beyond the level of what his former boss -- another small-state governor running for president -- went through during his first primary election. "I talked to President Clinton over the holidays," said McAuliffe, "and he clearly doesn't think this is any different than what he went through in 1992."

McAuliffe also predicted, as he has in the past, that the contest would be quick. It could be over as early as Feb. 4, he said; but with 12 primaries and caucuses set for March 2 and three more on March 9, the race will be over no later than March 10, he said. "The quicker we get this primary over with, the better," he added.

Clearly, Dean hopes for the former. Geto, the Dean campaign chief in New York, said staffers see one of two scenarios. "I think the likeliest scenario is that Dean wins or comes close in Iowa, wins big in New Hampshire and then does well in the Feb. 3 states," he said. "It's very possible that he will have so beaten down the field by then that he'll be the presumptive nominee by Feb. 4, or Feb. 18 [the day after the important Wisconsin primary] at the latest.

"The other scenario is that several of these guys are blown out of the water early, and one other candidate picks up some steam and money by getting support from other candidates. In that case, I think we wrap it up on March 2 -- Super Tuesday -- on the strength of our operations in New York and California and Texas and elsewhere. This thing will not go beyond March 2."

But Dean's rivals warn that such bravado could produce a backlash. "Voters in states that have primaries and caucuses in February and March don't want to be told that the race is over," said Clark spokesman Matt Bennett. "They're going to want to make that decision themselves, so presumptuousness is not necessarily a virtue here."

Josh Benson

Josh Benson is Salon's national correspondent.

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2004 Elections Bill Clinton George W. Bush Howard Dean Joe Lieberman John F. Kerry