Gambling with Dean

Robert Novak

1/31/2005 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- A prominent financier who has been a stalwart of Democratic fund-raising the past half-century told me last week his patience has been exhausted. He has remained a loyal Democrat while lamenting his party's periodic lurches to the left, but says he will neither contribute nor solicit a dime for the party so long as Howard Dean is chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

 This is not one sorehead issuing idle threats. Many other longtime contributors are telling DNC fund-raisers to count them out if Dean is elected chairman at the DNC's meeting in Washington Feb. 12. Thus, the growing momentum for Dean represents a gamble by Democrats that money from "Deaniacs" on the Internet will compensate for money no longer coming from traditional contributors.

 This looks less like a calculated risk than a mad roulette player's tossing everything on double-zero and hoping he gets lucky. Ordinary primary election voters last year were fascinated by Dean at first, but soon abandoned him. He lost 17 out of 18 Democratic primaries (winning only his own state of Vermont) after his Des Moines rant following defeat in the Iowa caucuses. A recent Wall Street Journal-NBC poll shows only 27 percent of Democrats are favorable toward him.

 The big money Democrats agree, including the financier who threatens to cut his ties with the Democrats for the duration of Dean's chairmanship. Not desiring to cut his ties with the party once Dean is gone or if he loses Feb. 12, he does not want his name used.

 "Financier George" told me that over the years he has contributed "hundreds of thousands" of dollars to the party, a claim I checked with Federal Election Commission filings. In fact, he contributed close to $200,000 in soft money during the 2000 election cycle alone. Nor is Financier George a switch-hitter helping both parties. He has given almost nothing to Republicans.

 One well-known Democratic fund-raiser has told party officials he has heard from at least 50 major contributors who say they will give nothing while Dean is chairman. The Forward newspaper has quoted Jay Footlik, Sen. John Kerry's former liaison with the Jewish community, as saying "a lot of mainstream, middle of the road, centrist Jewish Democrats would be very turned off and concerned and would be left wondering whether they have a home."

 Financier George happens to be Jewish, but he is not principally concerned with Dean's unenthusiastic support for Israel. His complaint is Dean's softness on foreign policy, characterized by his campaign promise to seek a fair trial for Osama bin Laden. He and other disaffected Democrats want restored the old formula of domestic liberalism wedded to a hard-line foreign policy.

 That job description fits former Rep. Martin Frost, a former chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. Despite less than exciting performances at regional conferences for DNC chairman candidates, Frost has emerged as the leading prospect to stop Dean. One key Frost supporter told me his candidate is "still in the game" but that it is not a "horse race." In other words, Dean is close to clinching the chairmanship.

 As unlikely as it might seem for Dean to be the party's leader, he has been more aggressive -- and tougher -- than anybody else seeking the chairmanship. Democratic sources report that Dean has made it clear to New Hampshire and Iowa committee members that if they want their states to keep first-of-the-nation precedence in presidential voting, they had better support him for chairman. Or, conversely, if they don't want to maintain their privileged status, don't vote for Dean.

 Stop-Dean Democrats have experienced one disappointment after another. Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack decided not to run. Former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard dropped out. The Democratic Governors Association did not endorse. The final hope for intervention rests with Democratic state chairmen, who will be polled by telephone in a nationwide conference call this morning (Monday). The guess is, however, they will merely put out a list of acceptable candidates. They may find Dean acceptable, but the party's money sources do not.