The anti-Bush

Posted: Aug 07, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Not until Howard Dean, the 21st-century candidate of the Internet, achieved old-fashioned 20th-century laurels of simultaneous Newsweek and Time cover stories did the skeptical realize he really may become the Democratic presidential nominee. The party's establishment, however, still cannot understand the phenomenon, which is perfectly clear to his own managers.

Dean utilizes the technology of 2004 to solve the insurgent's usually fatal fund-raising shortcomings, while his opponents are mired in 1992. He also benefits from the institutional memory of campaign manager Joe Trippi, who understands the historic importance of the Iowa and New Hampshire tests that his opponents have downgraded. But the former governor of Vermont is now the Democrats' recognized front-runner mainly because he is the Anti-Bush.

Dean's campaign is a remorseless assault on George W. Bush, far exceeding his opponents'. Humorless and unsmiling, the country doctor with upper-class roots pummels the incumbent president. He has tapped into pure hatred by rank-and-file Democrats of the reigning Republican that I have never seen in 44 years of campaign watching. Not Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan or even Bill Clinton generated such animosity.

Dean stays far in front of the nine-candidate pack in Bush-bashing. His latest coup was a television ad, run in the president's home state of Texas, showing Dean on camera denouncing Bush ("The only way to beat George Bush is to stand up to him"). That feeds Dean frenzy among Democrats. Every other candidate, even the pleasant Sen. Joe Lieberman, bashes Bush regularly. Nobody, however, does it with Dean's relish. Only the Dean camp perceived early on that Democratic voters wanted no optimistic messages of growth but attacks on the president who has been demonized ever since the Florida recount. Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Richard Gephardt caught on belatedly, and Lieberman less vigorously.

While Trippi is celebrated for harvesting big money through contemporary technology, he is also a 47-year-old politician who remembers the recent past. I first interviewed him in 1984 when he worked for Walter F. Mondale in his second presidential campaign. Trippi had not been engaged in such an effort since 1988, but he is a rare political operative today who always appreciated the potential of New Hampshire and Iowa.

Those early states have not been determinative since 1988, but Trippi knew that second place in Iowa and first in New Hampshire would put Dean in front and a win in both states probably would nominate him. Dean's strategists sensed that quite apart from the 2004 front-loaded primary election schedule, the campaign was off to a very early start. This nomination could be clinched by Feb. 10, and slow starters are doomed.

With Lieberman still narrowly leading in the national polls, his strategists still seem to be running in a non-existent national primary. The intensity of anti-Dean sentiment within the Democratic establishment cannot be exaggerated. It is not because of ideology, despite Lieberman's description of Dean as an "extremist" who "could take the Democratic Party into the wilderness."

Dean is actually in the mainstream of the party, with all candidates enunciating the same liberal line. Although Lieberman calls himself a centrist, his liberal rating in the Senate last year was measured by Americans for Democratic Action at 85 percent (identical to the allegedly more liberal Kerry and actually higher than the 80 percent for Iowa's supposedly ultra-liberal Tom Harkin).

What makes Dean so distasteful to his Democratic detractors is that he is not part of the establishment and unlikely ever to become part of it. The native New Yorker has become a flinty Vermonter, looking a little like a Calvin Coolidge of the left.

But how to stop him from being nominated? Former Clinton (and current) Lieberman pollster Mark Penn predicts Dean would lose 49 of 50 states to Bush, while a former Clinton colleague (unwilling to be quoted by name) told me: "Mark is wrong. Dean would only lose 40 states." This "he can't win" argument did not stop Barry Goldwater, George McGovern, Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter from being nominated, and the last two actually were elected. The party faithful liked the purity of those candidates and did not care about electability, and the same might be proved true of the Anti-Bush.