Jewish World Review Dec. 8, 2003 / 13 Kislev, 5764

Jack Kelly

Jack Kelly
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Bottom line: Dean's supporters are intense, but there aren't many of them | Howard Dean might stand a better chance of winning the Democratic nomination for president if he loses the Iowa caucuses to Rep. Dick Gephardt than if he beats Gephardt there.

Dean's supporters are intense, but there aren't many of them. Polls indicate that nationally, fewer than one Democrat in five supports him.

Dean's greatest asset is that the first contests are in Iowa and New Hampshire, which are wildly unrepresentative of Democratic sentiment in the rest of the country.

In the most recent Gallup Poll, retired Gen. Wesley Clark tied Dean for the national lead, with 17 percent support each. Gephardt and Connecticut Sen. Lieberman were next, at 13 percent each.

But Clark and Lieberman are nowhere in Iowa and New Hampshire, and though Gephardt is competitive in Iowa, he's an asterisk in New Hampshire.

By winning in Iowa and New Hampshire, Dean hopes to project an aura of invincibility for the bunched contests to come. Within two weeks of the New Hampshire primary Jan. 27, Democrats will hold primaries in 7 states, caucuses in 4 more.

If Dean beats Gephardt in Iowa (where he has slight leads in recent polls), Gephardt is toast. Gephardt is from neighboring Missouri, and won the Iowa caucuses in 1988. He's expected to win there.

In New Hampshire, Dean is leading Massachussetts Sen. John Kerry, his closest competitor, by awesome margins. If Dean clobbers Kerry there, Kerry probably will have to drop out, because there is no other primary - not even in his home state of Massachussetts - that he is likely to win.

If both Gephardt and Kerry are out of the race after New Hampshire, that could make the South Carolina primary Feb. 3 an elimination bout between Clark and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, with the winner anointed the un-Dean.

But if the field narrows to two on Feb. 3, that could be too soon for Dean. There still will be a month before Mar. 2, when 12 states - including California, Texas, New York, and Ohio- will hold primaries or caucuses.

As long as the opposition to Dean is fragmented, he can win with less than half the vote. But there aren't many primaries where Dean could win if he were running against just one of his major rivals.

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Suppose Gephardt wins in Iowa. That'd keep his campaign alive at least through Feb. 3, where he would compete for the un-Dean vote with Clark, Edwards and Lieberman. The fragmentation of that vote could give Dean victories in states he's not now expected to win. It's better to have several weak opponents than one strong one.

If no single competitor to Dean has emerged by Feb. 4, Dean's second big advantage - his immense bank account - kicks into overdrive. Dean will be able to dominate the airwaves in the Mar. 2 primaries while his rivals scratch to meet staff payrolls.

Two Democratic party rules make it theoretically possible to deny Dean the nomination even if he wins most of the primaries and caucuses.

Democrats will allocate convention delegates in proportion to the votes candidates receive, after a 15 percent threshhold is reached. This means he who wins a primary by a plurality wins little more than headlines. Narrow victories will not produce a windfall of delegates.

Second, Democrats automatically make all of their U.S. senators and congressmen delegates. If they fear Dean would drag the ticket down, and turn on him en masse, that could be decisive in a close race.

But even if Dean doesn't win a majority of delegates, if he is the clear front-runner going into the Democratic convention, denying him the nomination could doom Democrats in November. More than a few angry Dean supporters likely would defect to Green Party candidate Ralph Nader if a "pro-war" Democrat is nominated. If Nader gets 4 or 5 percent of the vote nationally, that pretty much would guarantee Bush a landslide in the electoral college.

So if Dean finishes a clear first in the Feb. 3 primaries, he probably can't, as a practical matter, be denied the nomination. And Dean may be more likely to finish first Feb. 3 if he finishes second in Iowa Jan 19.

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JWR contributor Jack Kelly, a former Marine and Green Beret, was a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. Comment by clicking here.

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