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Jewish World Review Dec. 20, 2002 / 15 Teves, 5763

Seth Gitell

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Vermont governor Howard Dean hopes to bridge the gulf between New England and the Western states, and bypass the socially conservative South. Should John Kerry be worried? | FORMER VICE-PRESIDENT Al Gore's announcement last Sunday that he would not run for president in 2004 had a big impact on the only two politicians who've made official moves toward the Democratic presidential primary: Massachusetts senator John Kerry, who formed an exploratory committee to raise money for a presidential run, and Vermont governor Howard Dean, who's already declared his candidacy.

Kerry is now the frontrunner for the 2004 contest, while Dean is poised to play the spoiler. And like most spoilers, his strengths play into the weaknesses of his opponent.A medical doctor by training, Dean is a straight talker who pushes a solidly progressive agenda: he supports universal health care and gay rights, and he opposes war with Iraq. But he's also pro-gun and anti-deficit-spending - just the sort of unexpected contradiction that Beltway pundits love. As a result, the small-state governor has already garnered a stack of positive press clippings.

Last June, the New Republic's Jonathan Cohn likened Dean to Arizona senator John McCain, the sort of presidential candidate who can offer up a refreshing bit of honesty and further his agenda, whether he wins or not. William Powers of the National Journal wrote last month that "nobody should write him off just yet." And David Broder of the Washington Post recently lauded the Vermonter's "eclectic mix of issues." All of which means that Dean is perfectly positioned, not to win - no one expects that to happen - but to give the centrist Kerry a lot of grief. In a strange turn of political events, the first major battle of the 2004 presidential race will take place in New England, with a host of local candidates eager to win it. The New Hampshire primary is scheduled for January 27, following only the Iowa caucus.

At least three of the many candidates bandied about as presidential hopefuls are from New England; in addition to Kerry and Dean, there's Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman. And there are four if you include Connecticut senator Chris Dodd. (Other potential candidates include John Edwards of North Carolina, former House minority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, General Wesley Clark of Arkansas, and the Reverend Al Sharpton of New York.) But in the very narrow universe of New England candidates, Dean could be the pebble in Kerry's shoe - a nuisance that hinders Kerry just enough to trip up his shot at the nomination.

For his part, Dean evinces no ill will toward Kerry, nor even a sense that his actions might affect the junior senator from Massachusetts. But whatever comes to Dean - the attention he gets, the money he raises - cuts directly into Kerry's support. Consider Dean's visit to Massachusetts last Thursday. First he appeared on Keller at Large, WLVI's Sunday-morning political talk show with host Jon Keller. Midway through the show, Keller asked Dean what he adds to the race given that Massachusetts is already offering up a much more well-known and well-financed candidate for the nomination. "I'm not going to attack John Kerry. I think John Kerry's contributed a lot to this country," Dean said, before dishing his barbs: "John Kerry's never had to balance a budget; I have. John Kerry has never delivered health insurance to anybody; I have. John Kerry has never delivered services to kids, early intervention to kids; I have."

During the show, Keller pressed Dean on his positions on health care (Dean favors a form of universal health care that requires contributions from plan beneficiaries to keep costs down); marriage for same-sex couples (Dean opposes marriage rights but backs Vermont-style civil unions for gay couples and favors the extension of federal benefits to such arrangements); and fiscal matters

(Dean is a deficit hawk who opposes tax cuts but would limit spending).

Through it all, Dean, true to his image as a McCain-like truth teller, was relatively straightforward and blunt. Afterward, off camera, Dean asked Keller how he performed. The pair discussed the relative brevity of Dean's responses, and the governor appeared proud of the short answers he managed to give to complicated questions. "One thing that helps," he offered, "is that I know what I think. I don't care what the polls say." Dean didn't target any particular candidate with this comment. He could have had in mind any number of leading politicians prone to verbosity. But his comments couldn't help but bring to mind Kerry, whose performance on NBC's Meet the Press on December 1, during which he announced his decision to form a presidential-campaign exploratory committee, and some commentators faulted for its ... verbosity. Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh, for example, criticized Kerry for being unduly wordy in his response to a question about his vote against the 1991 Gulf War: "One astonishing word storm later (more than 350, punctuated by three additional probings from Russert), Kerry still wouldn't admit he had been mistaken in any measure."

After the Channel 56 interview, Dean traveled to Steve Grossman's house in Newton. There, Grossman and developer Gerald Schuster (a major donor to Bill and Hillary Clinton) hosted a gathering of some 100 big-money donors to raise funds for Dean's presidential run. (The event capped two days of Boston fundraising for Dean.) Winning Grossman's support represents something of a coup for Dean. Ever since Michael Dukakis's 1988 presidential campaign, Grossman has been at the center of national Democratic fundraising efforts. (He raised money for Dukakis in 1988, Paul Tsongas in 1992, Bill Clinton after he defeated Tsongas, and Al Gore in 2000. He also took a turn as Clinton's chief fundraiser in 1998 as the chair of the Democratic National Committee.) It's possible that Kerry - with the more than $3 million he's already raised for 2004 and his marriage to Teresa Heinz (net worth $675 million) - doesn't need the Grossman-Schuster fundraising axis. That said, any serious presidential candidate can't be happy that a major font of political largesse is supporting a rival politician. (Another major local fundraiser usually linked with Grossman - Weston's Alan Solomont, who served as the finance chair both of Grossman's campaign for governor and of the DNC during Grossman's tenure as party chair - told the Phoenix Tuesday he also plans to help raise money for Kerry.)

"To have 232 people come and raise just about $100,000 in John Kerry's hometown the week he announces for president says volumes about Dean's ability to raise money and gain support as a candidate," says Grossman. (Not that Kerry necessarily wants Schuster's money, in any case. He recently gave a donation that he'd received from Schuster to the SEIU's campaign on behalf of nursing-home workers employed by Schuster in Wilbraham. The workers have been engaged in a three-year-long contract dispute with Schuster's company, Continental Wingate. The union has pressured candidates not to accept any money from Schuster and its members picketed the Dean fundraiser at Grossman's house.)

When Dean got inside Grossman's home after a brief and civil exchange with the protesters - he simply introduced himself - he was still thinking about his public comments about Kerry on Keller's show. "I got myself into trouble with John Kerry," he said to no one in particular as he stood in Grossman's foyer. "He kept asking and asking me about John Kerry." Dean then recounted snippets of the interview to Grossman and whomever else was in earshot. (It's true that Keller asked about Kerry, but it was no Tim Russert-style interrogation.) Later, a Democratic activist asked Dean about Kerry, and he replied, "I don't want to say anything bad about John Kerry - especially in his home state."That doesn't stop his supporters from making the inevitable comparisons.

At the Grossman residence, a small group of activists was buzzing about the potential 2004 field and Kerry's name came up. I asked one of them, Brookline realtor Chobee Hoy, why she is with Dean at this point and not Kerry. "I think I'm here not so much as anti-Kerry but pro-Dean," says Hoy, noting that Kerry "didn't speak out against the war" with Iraq. Regarding Dean, she says, "Everything I read about him suggests he's the kind of Democrat who's in short order now - who will say what he thinks no matter the consequences." Although Dean didn't hear my exchange with Hoy, he should be happy about it. Apparently without coaching from Dean, at least none that I witnessed, Hoy had keyed into the exact qualities Dean wants voters to notice.

NOT THAT JOHN Kerry's worried about any of this. He won't even comment on Dean's potential to cause him trouble in the 2004 primary. (Which isn't a surprise - why acknowledge a lowly small-state governor as a threat?) The most anyone associated with the Kerry camp will say about Dean is this, from a self-described "Kerry fan" who didn't want to give her name: "Howard Dean's record as governor defending Vermont against Maine notwithstanding, I think John Kerry would be pleased to put his national-security and foreign-policy credentials up against Howard Dean any day."

National security and foreign policy are clear areas of weakness for the Vermont governor. When asked if he thought a candidate with solid Vietnam credentials, such as Kerry, who earned a Silver Star in that war, might be best suited for post-September 11 leadership, Dean, who didn't serve in Vietnam due to a chronic back condition, was quick to answer: "John Glenn was a war hero." Former US senator Glenn was a highly decorated pilot in the Korean War and an astronaut who ran a disastrously short presidential campaign in 1984. "He certainly did not have a particularly good outing running for president. I think it's always good to have military service, but I don't think it makes or breaks your candidacy."

The former doctor also notes that he visited 51 countries as governor, and recently got back from a fact-finding mission in the Middle East. Dean is adamant that these were not junkets. "We tripled our trade to Taiwan after I went there," he says. "I don't believe in traveling just for fun." And how could he? Dean's brother was executed as a "spy" while traveling in Laos in 1975. While we don't discuss his brother, whose death, in part, may have prompted Dean's decision to go to medical school, his campaign literature notes that in 2001 the governor "helicoptered to the rice paddy where his brother is believed buried."

Meanwhile, Dean bristles slightly at the suggestion that September 11 may have marked the end of presidential candidacies successfully launched from governorships. "Name one significant piece of legislation or social change in the last 10 years that came from the Congress - there isn't one," says Dean, implying that change still comes from state-led initiatives.

While relatively new to foreign policy - especially in comparison to Kerry - Dean sounds relatively sensible on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He faults Bush for failing to "engage" in the Middle East - usually code language for the need to push Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, but not when Dean says it - and he criticizes the president for not being tough enough on countries that finance Palestinian suicide bombers. "I'd really go after the Saudis, the Iranians, and the Syrians to get them to stop funneling money for terrorism purposes," says Dean, particularly laying into President Bush for turning a blind eye to the Saudi role in promoting terror both in Israel and elsewhere in the world. "We're so dependent on Saudi oil. [Bush] can't stop terrorism if he's concerned about other political and economic forces." Here Dean echoes Kerry's call for energy independence. On the war with Iraq, Dean says he would have voted against the recent resolution to authorize force to remove Saddam Hussein. He asserts that Bush failed to provide enough evidence to the American people that Hussein poses an immediate threat. Dean believes voters will appreciate his being one of only two Democratic presidential hopefuls - the other is the Reverend Al Sharpton - to oppose war with Iraq.

FOR HOWARD DEAN'S presidential campaign to go anywhere at all, much less the White House, it has to be viable. No matter how quixotic, romantic, and heroic the story line behind Dean's push for the presidency seems - courageous, big-thinking governor from a small state challenges the political establishment with iconoclastic candidacy - it has to have legs. Dean comes from the second-smallest state in the union. With 608,827 residents, it's home to about as many people as Boston. That's the city, not the metropolitan area. You have to go back to Calvin Coolidge, a native of Plymouth, Vermont, to find a 20th-century president who came from a state as small as Vermont - though Coolidge had to move to Massachusetts to win.

It's hard to see a candidacy doing much from that base. Not that it can't be imagined. Just look at NBC's The West Wing. The weekly drama features a president who was a prophetic, liberal-minded governor from New England who focuses on the "big picture" and is not weighed down by polling data. His wife, of course, is a doctor, just like Dean's. More than a few commentators have noted the similarities between Dean and Josiah "Jed" Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen. Rather than say it could only happen on television, Dean seems to take some hope from the Bartlet administration. "I think it's great," he says. "Who could be lucky enough to have their candidacy to be on television every Wednesday night?"

Dean, to be sure, has more than a few Bartlet-like qualities. Bartlet can fall back on Latin when the occasion arises; Dean can speak Hebrew - well, at least he can recite Hebrew prayers. During a discussion with E.J. Kessler of the Forward, the subject of Dean's connection to Judaism came up. (His wife, Judith Steinberg, is Jewish; he met her at Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx.) Kessler reported that Dean said a Hebrew prayer during their interview. When I asked him about it on Thursday, he recited most of the first blessing for the Hanukkah lights.

All this is charming, of course, but does it mean he's electable? For Dean to win the Democratic nomination, he must not only impress the Democratic base with his positions on civil unions, health care, and Iraq; he must also show that he could win in the general election against Bush. Which raises the question: is there anything to draw centrist and moderate voters to Dean? While this isn't the deciding question in most primaries, it goes directly to the question of electability. And even the most die-hard Democrats factor electability into whom they will support in a primary. After 2000, nobody wants to throw away a single vote.

In that context, how can a candidate, who in effect owns the issue of gay civil unions, as Dean does, ever be taken seriously as a nationwide candidate? Here Dean offers up an interesting theory. Based on his campaign travels to date - more than 20 trips to New Hampshire, 15 to Iowa, and five to South Carolina - Dean has come to believe that his backing of civil unions is no obstacle to getting elected. Only reporters and gay audiences ever bring it up with him. And while political observers harp on the degree to which Clinton moved the Democratic Party rightward in 1992, Dean points out that Clinton was elected promising health care to all and advocating the public service of gays in the military that year. "I'd hardly call that a right-wing campaign," Dean says.

In addition, the Vermont governor has a trump card that none of the other Democratic contenders, including Kerry, can claim. He's opposed to federal gun-control measures. "If Al Gore had taken the position that I take, he'd be sitting in the White House right now," Dean says. "One could argue that I'm the most electable of all the Democrats because I'm the only one who hasn't taken on the position that we ought to have lots of gun control in this country."

That will play well in the Western part of the country, Dean says. Unlike the socially conservative South, he notes, the West holds more libertarian views on guns (and sexuality, for that matter). To buttress his claim, Dean points to the defeat of an anti-gay statewide referendum in Colorado and the victory of a Democratic woman over a religious conservative in Arizona's recent gubernatorial race. "There's much more of an ethos that everybody ought to do what they want to do in the West," says Dean. "That's why they're against gun control in the West but civil unions is not likely to be a big problem in the West."

Dean can put his theory into play if he gets past the first three major electoral contests in New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina. He is certainly an intriguing candidate, the exact kind of politician you want in the race, especially in the early stages. But right now, he is mostly positioned to play the spoiler. And it's a role he seems more than willing to take on.

JWR contributor Seth Gitell is the political writer of the Boston Phoenix Comment by clicking here.

12/18/02: No Gore 2004: Follow the Money
12/06/02: Gore, like Dicken's Jacob Marley, Dead as a Door-nail
10/24/02: War with Iraq may not happen, after all
10/22/02: Winning European hearts and minds
10/18/02: Lieberman makes 'em laugh --- on purpose
10/04/02: Hawking an interpretation (in which Scott Ritter tells our columnist to 'go to H-LL!')
09/13/02: Bush Challenge to U.N. Members: Are You Better than League of Nations?
09/06/02: Iraq attack: Ritter's reversal
08/30/02: Stick with comedy, Jon Stewart
08/16/02: Green around the gills: Nader Effect could cost the Dems the election in three states
08/01/02: Gore's low profile is no accident
07/31/02: President Hillary? Despite her denials, candidacy is not that unlikely
07/26/02: On the road with John Kerry
07/17/02: Meet the 'Clinton' of the 2004 New Hampshire primary
07/12/02: Ancient rivalry: Williams vs. DiMaggio
07/10/02: Warrior spirit
05/08/02: Hosting a TV show will keep Clinton off the streets
04/26/02: Truth in advertising in SaudiLand --- and ours
02/28/02: Time for hipsters to do a reality-check

© 2002, Seth Gitell