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Jewish World Review Dec. 16, 2003 / 21 Kislev, 5764

Roger Simon

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Can Dean still win?

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | The most delicious moment in the final Democratic debate of the year came at the very beginning when Ted Koppel wickedly asked the nine candidates on stage to raise their hands if they believed Howard Dean could defeat George W. Bush.

Only Dean raised his hand.

The audience rocked with laughter, Dean grinned, and the other candidates looked a little sheepish. If you missed the moment, don't worry — the Republicans will probably run it as a campaign commercial if Dean gets the nomination.

The debate was otherwise unmemorable. Dean had made sure of that when that same morning he engineered an endorsement by the party's 2000 standard bearer, Al Gore.

The media went predictably gaga. The political media — as opposed to normal human beings — are obsessed with endorsements, campaign staffs, and polls. In reality, there are probably not 500 people in the nation (there may not be 50) who will vote for Howard Dean because Al Gore tells them to. But the endorsement does have symbolic importance.

It is yet another sign that there is probably no "mainstream" of the Democratic party that fears and loathes Howard Dean. To put it another way, the Gore endorsement is further evidence that Howard Dean is the mainstream of his party.

When a guy raises more money than anyone else, rises higher in the polls than anyone else, and gets establishment endorsements, he is hardly an insurgent anymore. He has arrived.

The typical insurgent scenario goes like this: a candidate on the left or right wing of his party wins an upset victory in an early primary state. (Pat Buchanan in 1996 or John McCain in 2000, for example.) Facing a party take-over by an "extremist," the mainstream rouses itself and coalesces around the establishment choice, who goes on to win the nomination. (Bob Dole in 1996 and Bush in 2000.)

And that is what the other Democrats in the hunt this year hope happens. At first they tried to portray Dean as an angry, anti-war left-winger who is out of step with the party. But guess what? Hundreds of thousands of Democrats have contributed millions to the Dean campaign and they seem to like the fact that he opposed the Iraq war early and often.

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Nobody yet knows whether the capture of Saddam Hussein will change this. Logically, it shouldn't change anything. All the Democratic candidates, even those four who voted for the Iraq war resolution, have opposed the war.

But presidential campaigns are often about things other than logic. And one big question is whether Dean's anger still will have the same appeal. Clearly, many Democrats like Dean's anger. It empowers them. They like the fact Dean did not cave in or crawl before the White House.

(If Dean continues to show strength, the media will grow bored with him and concentrate on his presumptive choice for vice president. The most exciting, if not the most likely, choice would be Hillary Clinton. But there is a problem: She voted for the Iraq war resolution, too.)

So if Dean is not out of step with his party, what do his Democratic opponents use against him? Electability. They now go around the country saying that Dean cannot win because Bush will paint him has an unpatriotic radical, who will not defend this country against terrorism.

They may be right. But which of them can guarantee a victory against Bush? Which of them can rally the party? Even assuming the party wants an alternative to Dean, it seems to have too many alternatives: Dick Gephardt looks good in one state, John Edwards looks good in another, Joe Lieberman is working hard over there, Wesley Clark cannot be taken lightly and John Kerry is not out of it yet.

So how does the party coalesce around one candidate? Well, it's called a presidential primary campaign and not only is it not over, it has not even begun. An Al Gore endorsement does not a victory make. (The hot rumor is that Gore only endorsed Dean now because Gore heard his rival from 2000, Bill Bradley, was about to endorse Dean.)

At least one group watched the Gore endorsement very carefully, however: White House political operatives. They began telling reporters that it was now "extremely likely" Dean would be the nominee — and that they were delighted.

"The best thing Bush has going for him is that Dean is a weak Michael Dukakis," a key Bush official told the New York Daily News. "Dukakis won 10 states. Unless things turn very bad for Bush, I don't see Dean winning more than five."

This kind of talk helps the other Democrats in the race, of course. But you have to wonder why White House operatives want to help the Democrats pick a different nominee. Could it be they are a little more afraid of Howard Dean than they are letting on?

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