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Jewish World Review Sept. 9, 2003 / 12 Elul, 5763

Roger Simon

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Dean is discovering a hard political truth | ALBUQUERQUE N.M. — It was one of those moments that presidential campaigns struggle hard to avoid. As Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt was barging out of a news conference, he bumped into former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who was barging in.

"We'll have fun tonight," Gephardt said, referring to the first official debate of the 2004 campaign, that would take place in a few hours at the University of New Mexico.

"Fun for some of you," Dean said. "I'm wearing my body armor for this one." Dean is discovering a hard political truth: The higher you climb up the pole, the more your behind is exposed.

But he has turned out to be a genuine phenomenon, an insurgent who could run away with the Democratic nomination. And the other candidates have watched first in annoyance, then in frustration and now in panic as Dean has continued to gather money, volunteers and media attention.

Though the other candidates do not lack outrage when it comes to Dean, they do lack guts. At least the guts to attack him face-to-face on stage on live TV. The exception during the debate was Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who previously had attacked Dean as being soft on defending America and now attacked him on U.S. trade policy.

But while it was inaudible to TV viewers and reporters watching the debate in the filing center at the debate, when Lieberman said that if Dean were elected the "Bush recession would be followed by a Dean depression," the audience soundly booed Lieberman.

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To Lieberman, desperately seeking to jumpstart his campaign by launching an attack that would guarantee him airtime and print space, the boos were worth it. The best way to get attention is to attack the front-runner, and Lieberman's attack on Dean only proved that this is what Dean has become.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Back on a snowy day in January in Des Moines, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts became an early front-runner by drawing about 500 people to an event where only about 50 were expected. With few other measuring sticks available, the media decided that was good enough to anoint Kerry.

Yet now, eight months later, with both polls and fund raising to go by, the momentum has clearly swung to Dean, who leads Kerry by a lot in New Hampshire polls and leads Gephardt narrowly in Iowa. If Dean wins both states, which has happened only twice in Democratic Party history, both Kerry and Gephardt would be severely damaged, if not eliminated.

Dean's strategy for victory is simple: Dean bashes George Bush with every issue he raises, with almost every sentence he speaks, his words falling like hammer blows upon the president. "There are probably more members of Al Qaeda attacking America today in Iraq than before the war!" Dean said at a rally in Santa Fe, N.M., the day before the debate. "Our biggest loss in this country is the sense that we're all in this together -- the president has destroyed that! We have got to beat this president; we want our country back!"

Some Democrats are afraid that this message, which may be popular with the activist Democrats who vote in the early primaries and caucuses, will be a losing message in a general election, where independents, who are less angry with Bush, may fail to provide their crucial swing votes.

Others believe that nobody is going to beat Bush, no matter who the Democrats nominate. This is a view not shared, however, by Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe, who came to New Mexico to say that polls showing Bush with high personal approval ratings are meaningless. "I couldn't care less if voters want to go fishing with the guy," McAuliffe said. "He is under 45 percent in all the re-election polls. He is vulnerable."

But the leaders of the Democratic Party are being careful about Dean. They want to see if he has staying power or if he is just another shooting star that flames out and falls to earth as the primary season progresses. New Mexico, which Al Gore won very narrowly in 2000, has become a critical state to the Democrats in 2004 as they seek to make up in the West those states out of their reach in the South. And when New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was asked if Dean could win New Mexico, he played it about as carefully as a human being could.

"Howard Dean is a good candidate, and I think he could win New Mexico," Richardson said. "But so could all the others."

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© 2002, Creators Syndicate