Dean's antiwar boom goes bust

As Washington Democrats caucus, opposition to the Iraq war already feels like yesterday's passion.

By Jessica Kowal
Published February 7, 2004 5:41AM (UTC)
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Howard Dean pledged this week to win Saturday's caucus in Washington state, a remark that wouldn't have raised an eyebrow on New Year's Day.

For months, Washington seemed a Dean stronghold -- ever since August 2003, when the Vermont governor roared into Seattle during his "Sleepless Summer" tour, denouncing President Bush's war in Iraq and calling for universal healthcare. In a city full of "Impeach Bush" and "No Iraq War" signs and bumper stickers, where thousands protested in the streets before and during the war, Dean was met by an overflow crowd of 8,000 angry liberals who chanted his name. He pronounced himself "awestruck" by the reception.

That was then. Now, desperate to recapture that feverish support, Dean came to Washington for three days this week. Last Saturday, he spoke to 2,000 people in Seattle and attracted hundreds more at rallies in Spokane, Tacoma and Seattle on Tuesday and Wednesday. His campaign says it has nearly 37,000 e-mail addresses statewide. Yet Dean's staunchest supporters sound increasingly doubtful that he'll win the caucuses, even though there could be fewer than 30,000 participants.

It's an amazing turnabout for Dean and, more broadly, for the Democratic Party. Today, in one of the most antiwar communities in the nation, the Iraq War has become, even for Dean supporters, no longer a litmus test to separate the candidates; it's just one of many reasons to unite against George W. Bush.

"The president has done something that lots of Democrats could never figure out how to do, and that's bring us all together," said Rep. Jim McDermott of Seattle. McDermott, an early Dean backer, went to Baghdad in September 2002 to accuse Bush of misleading America about the Iraqi threat.

McDermott told Salon on Tuesday that a Dean victory is "not out of the realm of possibility," but in Thursday's Washington Post, he was clearly less optimistic, saying that it's now "a long shot."

As in other states, Democrats here want to back a candidate they perceive to be a winner. And more than a thousand people -- most of them still shopping for a candidate -- crowded a Seattle hotel ballroom Tuesday night to hear Sen. John Kerry speak after he won primaries in Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico and North Dakota.

Aside from firefighters, whose unions long ago endorsed the Massachusetts senator, few claimed to back Kerry before he won the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. Many who sheepishly accepted Kerry stickers said they were first drawn to Dean, or to retired Gen. Wesley Clark, with a few still looking at Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

Sharon Coleman, a 59-year-old retiree from Tacoma, drove straight from Tuesday's Dean rally, at a theater in her hometown, up to Seattle to hear Kerry assail Bush. Dean has clearly captured her heart. She praised his "different philosophy to government" and his grassroots support, and she said she's "totally against" the Iraq War. But now she's leaning toward Kerry and explains why the war issue wasn't powerful enough on its own to drive the Democratic vote.

"We equate the war with Bush, and I'm totally against Bush -- everything he stands for," Coleman said. "Whoever can beat him -- that's where we're going to have to end up."

If Dean's campaign could be rescued anywhere, it should be here in Seattle, where hundreds of city folk raise chickens in their backyards to fertilize organic gardens, and where the city government wants to fine people who don't separate recyclables from the rest of their garbage.

The Dean campaign emerged just as the antiwar movement was looking for a messenger to take the fight to Bush. And he drew support from many Democrats in Seattle and Tacoma as well as the nearby suburbs -- areas packed with liberals and environmentalists alienated from the "red state" heartland that, incomprehensibly, seems to support the president they detest.

These days, however, antiwar fever has eased while other issues -- mainly jobs, the economy and healthcare -- have come to the fore, even for Dean supporters at the hastily planned Tacoma rally. Some say the capture of Saddam Hussein reduced the war issue's profile; others feel that other candidates adopted Dean's antiwar position and neutralized its importance.

Dean himself has also refocused his campaign on economic issues, telling Salon earlier this week that "the American public has moved their attention" away from the war. "Folks [think] Iraq is still important -- we're still losing lives every day -- but that's not where their focus is. They're really worried about what's going to happen to their own families now and that always takes precedence." In Tacoma, he sprinkled three references to the Iraq War into his speech but did not make a sustained argument about it.

Mary Vargas, a 44-year-old engineer from suburban Renton who was attending the Dean event in Tacoma on Tuesday, bluntly described her priorities: "The war. Bush lied." Then she added that she's also concerned about healthcare, special interests and jobs.

Last summer, Dean's antiwar position grabbed her. But now, "when they didn't find the weapons of mass destruction, I felt I could also focus on other things," Vargas said. "I got validated that I knew" the war was a fraud -- so Dean's aggressiveness mattered less.

Meghan Kniffen, an 18-year-old high school senior from Tacoma whose blond hair is streaked with pink highlights, likes Bush but attended the Dean rally "to get more informed." To her, the Iraq War is old news.

"It was the only thing going on in the country last year," Kniffen said. Now, "if I don't see it on TV every night, it's not that big."

Especially compared with those at the Kerry campaign event, Dean's supporters sound like purists who praise Dean for wanting to "change America." But they, too, are prepared to switch horses.

"Dean most reflects our ideals and our thoughts," said Alicia Lawver, 27, of Tacoma, whose 3-year-old daughter goes to sleep listening to a recording of Dean speaking to supporters.

And after the primary? Lawver repeated a phrase heard a dozen times this week: "It's anybody but Bush."

Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who says he'd bring U.S. troops home within 90 days of his inauguration, has also been hunting for votes in Washington. He sounds disappointed that, yes, voters are less motivated by the war issue. He further scorns the pragmatism that now motivates many voters here and elsewhere, blaming his rivals for "trying to sweep Iraq under a dirty carpet of lies."

In reality, the race here is impossible to predict. A seriously contested election might attract 30,000 people to attend the caucuses -- a tiny percent of the state's 3 million registered voters, said state Democratic Party chairman Paul Berendt, who endorsed Dean last summer.

Since the sentiment in the general population doesn't seem to matter much, neither the newspapers nor the candidates have polled voters, and no candidate is advertising on television. Adding to the unpredictability, anyone can show up at a caucus site at 10 a.m. on Saturday, sign a form to declare that they're a Democrat for the day, and vote.

As in Iowa, candidates must win 15 percent of the vote at a caucus to merit delegates, so voters who support minor candidates can switch to another camp for a second vote.

(Meanwhile, to save about $7 million, the legislature canceled the 2004 at-the-polls primary this year. The Democratic Party assigns delegates based solely on caucus results -- so a primary, which drew nearly 500,000 voters in 2000, would have been just a beauty contest anyway. The GOP, meanwhile, ditched its primary because Bush doesn't have an opponent.)

Since only the most devoted typically attend caucuses, Dean supporters could still carry the day. Dean is backed by unions representing government workers, healthcare workers, and painters and tradesmen, said Steve Haro, Dean's state communications director. "The guv has shown Washington a lot of love," he quipped.

Kerry is supported by the firefighters, communications workers, the American Federation of Teachers, and local machinists -- and veterans are informally mobilizing, said Alixandra Wade, Kerry's state director.

Berendt, the party chairman, said the state typically "loves the maverick" and Dean had the hottest early support. But now, "the hardcore base issue is: What is it going to take to beat George Bush," he added with a sigh. "It's just the whole package."

Jessica Kowal

Jessica Kowal is a writer based in Seattle, Wash.

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2004 Elections Howard Dean Iraq War