Howard Dean's decline

Robert Novak
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Posted: Jan 19, 2004 12:00 AM

DES MOINES -- If Iowa were kicking off the Democratic presidential selection with a regular primary election instead of Monday night's caucuses, the fabulous campaign of Howard Dean would suffer a possibly mortal wound. Thousands of anti-war activists who have come here from all over the country to work for the former governor of Vermont, directed by his elaborate network of precinct captains, may save him. But talk of Dean roaring out of Iowa into New Hampshire and clinching the nomination by the end of January has ended.

The last week has been a nightmare for Dean. Beginning with a run-in on Sunday, Jan. 11, with a Republican heckler, he has looked increasingly less presidential. Dean's broad-brush painting of his Democratic opponents as warmongers has backfired, diminishing his identification as the essential anti-Bush candidate. He has failed to significantly reduce support for Rep. Richard Gephardt as his principal opponent, and instead lost backing to revived candidacies of Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards.

The extraordinary volatility of Democratic voters here is explained by their leaders as evidence of their passionate desire to defeat George W. Bush in November. "Electability" is the characteristic most mentioned by Iowa Democrats as what they seek in a presidential candidate. Support for Dean has slipped so sharply here because he is viewed as markedly less electable in view of his recent conduct.

Dean's problems nationally started when he dismissed the importance of capturing Saddam Hussein. But his Iowa slide began, says one prominent Democratic neutral, on Jan. 11 in the town of Oelwein, when a Republican heckler called Dean "pompous," accused him of "mean mouthing" and then interrupted him. Dean erupted, shouting: "You sit down! You had your say! Now, I'm going to have my say!"

That exchange may have been responsible for a lackluster performance by Dean at the "black and brown" debate that same day. Nearly a week later, I heard the Oelwein story repeatedly retold by disapproving Iowans. It was followed by Dean's angry declaration that he no longer would be a "pin cushion" and by his attack television ads against opponents (ads that his campaign said it pulled but were still running on Des Moines television Friday night and Saturday). The Des Moines Register poll, released Saturday night, stunned Dean's supporters by showing he had fallen to third place in a four-way race.

Just a week ago, Dick Gephardt seemed likely to benefit from Dean's decline. The winner of the 1988 caucuses, only Gephardt has the ground organization to challenge Dean's. His campaign is run by 33-year-old John Lapp, a political prodigy from northern Virginia and former aide to Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack who is considered the hottest political organizer in the state

At Marshalltown Thursday night, leaders and members of 21 labor unions conducted an old-fashioned rip-roaring rally for Gephardt. To these supporters, this is a cultural war. Chuck Rocha, the Steelworkers Union political director who is running Gephardt's labor effort in Iowa, asks whether blue-collar Iowans will relate to a brother unionist who works the same job and has the same calluses or to a body-piercer from Seattle.

Polling and anecdotal evidence, however, show that the Dean defectors are going to Kerry and Edwards, not Gephardt. The rise of Edwards since his unexpected endorsement a week ago by the Des Moines Register was equally unexpected. That may have countered suspicions that Edwards, though matching the Iowa standard of niceness better than any other candidate, appeared to be too callow.

But it is Kerry who has been the hot candidate, belatedly hitting the stride he had shown in past Massachusetts campaigns. Capitalizing on his Vietnam War record as never before, he has mobilized veterans. While Kerry does not have Dean's precinct organization or Gephardt's labor battalions, veteran Iowa Democratic organizer John Norris has a plan to get his voters to caucuses.

InsiderAdvantage, which previously has polled mainly in the South, says the contest may not actually be that close in Iowa. Calculating second-choice preferences that may be decisive in the complicated caucus system, the poll gives Kerry 33 percent of the actual caucus vote to Dean's 26 percent. Instead of a quick knockout here, Howard Dean is struggling for survival.