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Jewish World Review July 9, 2003 / 9 Tamuz, 5763

Roger Simon

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Redefining likeability | WASHINGTON Just outside this city, in a place they call America, most people go about their daily lives without giving politics a second thought.

Take Ashland, Ore., which I visited recently on vacation. Ashland, a town of about 20,000 located approximately 15 miles north of the California border, is home to a famous Shakespeare festival, lots of B&Bs, a hundred-acre park and people who spend entire afternoons without ever saying things like "electability" or "momentum" or "political viability."

Which is why I was surprised one morning to come down to the lobby of the inn I was staying at to find two women wearing large "Howard Dean for President" buttons.

This was a shocker for two reasons: First, campaigns don't really do political buttons anymore. They are too expensive and have been replaced by peel-off stickers. (Which is a shame. What kid is going to start a peel-off sticker collection?)

Second, how many people are walking around wearing political buttons in the summer of 2003? Most people don't even realize there is a presidential campaign going on.

Unless, of course, they support Howard Dean. People who support Howard Dean are excited by Howard Dean.

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Only a few months ago, some political experts were saying that the end of the war in Iraq would also spell the end of Dean, as it would rob him of his chief issue.

Instead, Dean is the Democrat making Democrats proud to be Democratic again.

His scathing, unrelenting attacks on George Bush (as well as on his fellow Democratic candidates) have convinced a number in the party that Dean is unafraid to be himself, that he is uncompromising and authentic.

He, like John McCain before him, is the politician for people who hate politics.

Though McCain rarely pandered to the crowd -- he would sometimes challenge questioners in the audience -- he had an uncanny knack for winning people over on a personal level. For all McCain's rumored hair-trigger temper (rumors fueled in some part by the George Bush campaign), McCain was a very likable candidate.

Likability is not Dean's strong suit, however -- especially the warm and fuzzy variety. Dean is a doctor, and it sometimes shows: He can be arrogant, dismissive and abrupt.

Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan analyst, wrote of Dean a few months ago that "it's only a slight exaggeration to say that he has the personal warmth of an empty fireplace on a frigid night in Novosibirsk."

"The single most important attribute a candidate brings to a campaign is not his record but his personal qualities," Rothenberg told me. "Issue voters are mostly ideological voters, but the voters in the center think first not about a candidate's stand on trade or abortion, but is he a windbag? Is he arrogant? How is his bearing? How does he carry himself?"

Andrew Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union, the largest union in the nation, said: "To become president in this era, you have to go to a bar or a bowling alley or a diner and have people feel you belong there. The question is, can you hang out with them?"

And one could argue that from the election of Ronald Reagan to the present, the more likable candidate has won the presidency each time.

The Democrats have a number of candidates who are strong on likeability -- Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, Bob Graham and John Edwards -- and one who is working hard to become more likeable -- John Kerry, who jokes about having his "aloof gland" removed. But Dean is not the first guy who comes to mind when you imagine hanging out with somebody in a bar or bowling alley.

Which may be one reason why George Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, was overheard recently telling a companion that Dean is "the one we want." (Dean's liberal record would be another reason.)

Bush does very well on likeability, so well that in the last campaign his aides spent almost all their time getting him over the "competency" hurdle in the public mind, a battle they now believe is won.

I believe in the power of likeability, but Dean may also be redefining what likeability is: After all, how many other candidates have followers making their own political buttons?

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© 2002, Creators Syndicate