Will Howard Dean become the next president as Jimmy Carter did in 1976, or will he lose big like Michael Dukakis in 1988? The answer may lie in whether George W. Bush becomes more like Ronald Reagan in 1984.
In August, InsiderAdvantage revealed the first non-partisan national poll to show former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean leading the Democratic field for president. But a recent series of follow-up polls by the same group indicates that while Dean received a short-lived boost from his Al Gore endorsement, his reaction to Saddam Hussein's capture cast doubt that he can ever reach the White House.
Immediately following the Gore endorsement, 48 percent of likely voters said they would vote for Bush, 34 percent for Dean, with 18 percent undecided. Those results were reported just two days before Hussein's capture. But another InsiderAdvantage poll right after the capture showed Bush climbing to a clear majority of the vote -- 52 percent to Dean's 34 percent, with fewer undecided voters.
At face value, this would seem like banner news for Republicans. But a closer look suggests they should still be wary of Dean. In so many ways, this dark horse is emerging from nowhere, captivating at least the public's curiosity, if not always its support.
We've seen this phenomenon from two different Democrats in modern times. Unlike the affable Bill Clinton, who had worked to raise his profile and presence long before his '92 candidacy, Carter and Dukakis were slightly quirky and undefined entities going into the year of their respective nominations.
Carter managed to overcome early controversial statements, such as a Playboy magazine interview in which he confessed "lust in his heart" -- tame stuff nowadays -- to emerge victorious in his bid to unseat incumbent President Gerald Ford. But Dukakis allowed misguided campaign ploys -- like riding in a tank wearing a silly helmet -- to squander the resounding lead he enjoyed after being nominated.
Carter came across as a new-and-improved candidate, and he was canny enough to define himself before his opponents could do it for him. But Dukakis allowed then-Vice President George H.W. Bush to define the rigid little tank commander as soft on crime. When Dukakis reacted too calmly to the hypothetical suggestion of what he would do were his own wife violently assaulted, he was quickly perceived as completely passionless.