Inside the numbers: Howard Dean

Posted: Dec 23, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

As for Dean, it's becoming clear that he has the momentum to become his party's nominee. His decision not to back down in opposing the Iraq war hasn't harmed him with those most likely to vote in a Democratic primary. The question is whether he will define himself and advocate positions that might appeal to voters before his Democratic and Republican opponents can demonize him and render him unelectable.

It could prove costly to Republicans if they overestimate the apparent self-inflicted damage Dean has done to himself so far. Complacency is the GOP's enemy. Likewise, Dean's self-styled iconoclastic image might seem out of step today, but it could become more acceptable if world or domestic circumstances change significantly before next year's election approaches.

The survey that showed Bush leading Dean also posed the question of whether Americans feel better about their personal finances than they did a year ago. Fifty-two percent said no. Combine that with what remains mixed support for the Iraq effort -- despite the capture of the heinous Saddam -- and reason remains for the Republicans to approach Dean with caution.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter took a sluggish economy and the nation's Watergate hangover and turned it into the defeat of President Ford. Carter came across as being more in touch with average Americans than Ford, and they voted for him. Of course, he was tossed out four years later in a resounding defeat by Reagan. Then it was the Republican challenger who suddenly seemed more in-touch as he proposed optimistic solutions for the nation's very real problems.

Contrary to Carter, Dukakis in 1988 seemed out of touch with life itself. He appeared mechanical and humorless. His only real campaign message -- a pledge to bring more "competence" to the White House -- was an utter flop.

Which returns us to a consideration of Dr. Dean: If the jobless rate falters and the media's daily body count from Baghdad gets traction, Dean may have the opportunity to shed the goofy side of his persona and blossom into the moderate "fresh" face the electorate often yearns for.

But if the economy keeps improving and the president continues to pull off feats of derring-do -- like successfully taking on half the world to defend Americans' safety -- no one will topple him. His challenge is to keep performing king-like magic while still appearing to understand the person on the street.

Unforeseen events -- fate, if you will -- could decide which man and which party control the American government come next winter. But our surveys show that the candidates' reactions to these unexpected events can define them in the public's eye and get them elected -- or not.