Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, right, makes a point at an MSNBC debate in Iowa as Rep. Dick Gephardt looks on, Jan. 11, 2004.
Whether you're in Iowa, the temporary ground zero of Democratic presidential politics, or in Washington, D.C., the permanent headquarters, most of what you hear these days is a debate about Howard Dean. But the debate in Iowa is not the same as the debate in Washington.
In the field, the intriguing questions have to do with whether Dean, the race's hare, has run away from the field. His rivals and critics say that all the controversies generated by Dean's errant tongue are about to reach critical mass. That would enable Missouri's Rep. Dick Gephardt, with his self-described one-plodding-step-at-a-time tortoise campaign, to cross the finish line first. Gephardt won these caucuses in 1988 and has never neglected the state since. He still has legions of true industrial union troops.
But Dean is counting on thousands of new people who were not participating in 1988 to blow away the Gephardt loyalists. Some are the children of the Internet, the tool Dean has brought to bear like no candidate before. But Dean also has his own ranks of union people, including the fast-growing lower-wage service workers. And Dean has also worked hard to cover his flank with the old farm-labor base, adding a surprise endorsement from Sen. Tom Harkin, a left-populist institution in Iowa for a quarter century.
Right now, lots of political professionals in the state think Dean can win this early test — especially if the news over the next week provides a defining point on which Dean can distinguish himself from Gephardt.
Back in Washington, it's become so hard to imagine another Democrat denying Dean the nomination now that the party's establishment has turned to worrying about what kind of general election candidate Dean will be. The mood was captured by James Carville on CNN asking the Democratic Party chairman to tell him something to make him feel better about Dean.
"I just can't get my mind wrapped around the idea of him as the nominee," said Carville, who helped the country wrap its mind around the idea of Bill Clinton in 1992.
The Dean debate in Washington is strikingly non-ideological. There are deep-dyed centrists who think Dean's new blood, new fundraising and new avenues represent the early arrival of the party's future. And there are plenty of liberals willing to fight for Dean's views on the war and civil unions but fearful of his flaws as a messenger. They see in the man what they consider a lack of discipline and even an intellectual arrogance. And they recoil at the clunky way he tries to make the traditional pivot from primary campaign phenomenon to viable general election candidate. It's typical for Democrats to run to the left to secure the nomination, then scurry back to the center in the fall. Republicans run to the right during their primaries, then re-center themselves. But Dean, if he's the nominee, will have to cover a greater distance in getting back to the middle than any winning presidential candidate in recent memory. Nowadays, every word you say at every truck stop in Iowa and New Hampshire is recorded by some 25-year-old "embed" reporter with a minicam. So it's harder to make the switch gracefully.
Winning campaigns have often had a built-in gearshift, such as the "New Democrat" message Clinton used to dispel the doubts of general election voters even while he was pursuing the nomination. In like fashion, George W. Bush did not have to declare himself a "compassionate conservative" to win his GOP nomination. That was a theme aimed at moderates and suburban women voters, right from the start. Dean by contrast has done little so far to lay this kind of groundwork.
It may be that Dean started with so little in the way of money, name recognition and party support that he had to target the angriest and most partisan Democrats in order to get going. You have to be nominated, after all, before you can win. But then what good is the nomination if it costs you your chance of winning?