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Tales from the Primary Trail: Dr. Dean's House Calls
November 26, 2003
By Michael McCord

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A year ago the notion of a "Dean Juggernaut" would have been fantasy. Even six months ago, the concept was a punch line in the making but today with the New Hampshire primary fast approaching, it's a sobering - no make that horrifying - fact for the rivals of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. "Every day I wake up sick," a staffer from a rival campaign responded when asked about Dean. "They (the Dean campaign) act like it's Mardi Gras every day and we're just dressing for a funeral." The candidate who couldn't afford a pollster at the start of his campaign is now at the top of primary opinion polls.

All this frontrunner, opinion chatter is essentially meaningless today. On the first-in-the-solar-system primary planet, watching so-called frontrunners fall on their face is quadrennial pastime. On a cool autumn evening late last week, I attended a Howard Dean revival session at the Rochester Opera House. Dean, he of the East Hampton (N.Y.) Deans, a former banker, ski bum, practicing MD, and center-of-the-road governor is by far the most unlikely rise to prominence by a Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Rochester, the largest city in New Hampshire's seacoast region, has a blue-collar personality and has watched its manufacturing base slowly evaporate over the past decade (the largest employer in Rochester is the City of Rochester itself). Here is a jobless recovery case study where the official unemployment rate is lower than the national average but underemployment is the rage.

It's a good place to consider Dean's curious populist magnetism and his appearance was a rollicking affair. The place was mostly filled with more than 375 Dean fans and potential supporters who waited patiently as Dean ran almost an hour late from a previous campaign stop. The patience of his audience was one thing - the fact that they were there at all on a Friday night in November (the night life in southeastern New Hampshire is actually quite lively) speaks volumes about his current star quality.

At this and other rallies I've witnessed, Dean's support cuts across class and cultural lines and includes the young and old, independents who voted for John McCain, liberals who supported Al Gore and Bill Bradley, environmentalists, stray Republicans, blue collar workers and professionals of all stripes. And the collective mood is like a trip to a political Disneyland where it's a small world after all and all things are possible.

Dean came to Rochester the day after tens of thousands anti-war, anti-George W. Bush protesters in London cheered as they toppled a cardboard statue of W. Bush in Trafalgar Square. Dean took to the opera house stage to a roar of cheers on the day when, after month's of Bush-bashing, the Republican establishment began to strike back by releasing a trashy, fearmongering television ad extolling the warrior resolve W. Bush as he fights the holy war on terror - while slyly smearing the patriotic credentials of those who dare criticize W. Bush's fetish for preemptive war while helping to make terrorism a high-growth industry.

It was, of course, Dean's strident opposition to the Iraq war that separated him early from his main rivals, the D.C. pols Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, and John Edwards who voted in favor of giving Bush political cover for his Iraq adventure (they now claim that Bush pulled a unilateral bait-and-switch on them). We in New Hampshire remember Dean as the feisty next door governor who practiced the fine art of making political enemies across the spectrum (it's safe to say that Dean pissed off more liberals and progressives than GOPers during his decade-plus run as governor).

And he doesn't appear to have lost his touch. More than any candidate, Dean seized the Bully Pulpit and with his blunt, naturally pedantic, and biting wit style (he does have an easy mark in Bush), he has become the beacon of hope for the legions of angry and mistrustful voters - who are as equally furious with the Bush regime as they with the Democratic party establishment.

Dean is articulate and smart with an intelligence in action that borders on arrogance (i.e., his pick-up trucks with Confederate flag flap was a mystifying, self-inflicted wound). As with any candidate, there is muddle about who exactly Dean is (liberal? moderate? conservative?) and where he stands on the issues (if you've followed the paper trail, Dean's anti-war stance is more ambiguous than publicly presented). But Dean's strength (and appeal) is that he exudes no doubt about who he is - Dean is unlikely to say "I stand before you as my own man" as Al Gore famously confessed in 2000 - and is equally clear about his political purpose: defeat Bush and alter the country's destiny.

Dean's political clarity feeds a supply and demand hunger for many disenchanted voters. They are demanding regime change and a candidate who will stand up and smite the naked emperor. Dean supplies the bravado and he's been successful so far in the greenhouse atmosphere of the New Hampshire primary by employing a hearts and minds campaign based on treating voters, he says, "like adults" and not consumers. He wants converts.

The early campaign revivalist feel of Dean's stump speech has evolved into a more standard hit list of issues (environment, health care, energy, education, national security) delivered in a blunt counterpoint manner (one female supporter, who has seen Dean speak in person before, told me she missed his earlier fiery broadsides when he called D.C. politicians "cockroaches.") He's been accused of exploiting anger and little more but this is a lazy charge. I think Dean is a wonk's wonk at heart and he could put his audiences to sleep with the narcotic of government minutiae if he wished. Unlike charming Bill Clinton, another small state governor when he campaigned here in 1992, there's nothing warm and fuzzy about Dean - he comes across as roll-up-the-sleeves and let's get to work executive.

On the stump, Dean deftly wraps policy and outrage together. He likes balanced budgets and slams W. Bush for running a "credit-card" presidency. He attacks the current Medicare and energy bills as frauds and indicative of the legislative quality of the Bush era - "99 percent junk and 1 percent good." Dean mocks Bush's No Child Left Behind education law for spreading Texas education failure to the rest of the country until there is "no behind left." (Dean is less specific and even less convincing on the issue of saving jobs being sacrificed to the globalization gods.)

In his Rochester speech, Dean showed he's becoming bolder, criticizing Bush for being a failure on national security grounds and taking the fight onto ground which the GOP believes can't be taken. Just as he did when deciding to opt out of campaign finance money and restrictions, the message is clear - I'm not gonna take Bush's crap. Dean also promised the Rochester crowd to "restore honor, dignity and respect" to the White House when he wins: an amusing theft of Bush's mantra in 2000 and a sly reminder to Dean supporters (as if they needed reminding) that Bush is a corrupt liar.

Yet, the most revealing portion of the Rochester event was not an angry broadside. It came when Dean was asked about gay marriage in the wake of the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling a few days earlier. Dean danced around his support or not of gay marriage by framing the issue as a matter of equal rights but then he added something else. Dean signed the country's only civil union law in the summer of 2000 and it tore Vermont apart politically (in a close reelection bid a few months later, he was challenged by progressives and right-wingers). Dean said "98 percent of what we (elected officials) do is resource allocation" but signing the civil union law "was a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a real difference."

The Dean campaign has garnered headlines his energetic kiddie corps staff (not seen in such numbers since the Clean Gene brigades working for Eugene McCarthy in 1968) and for its Internet savvy, particularly with its fundraising wizardry and organizing sophistication (more than 500,000 Dean supporters are Internet linked). His unconventional campaign (it's the 2004 equivalent of Bill Clinton and his saxophone) is a reflection of his pragmatic little political "engine that could" ethic - the organizational and logistical might of the campaign has dwarfed all his rivals and the key is more than phone banks and mailing lists and canvassing. The campaign's meet up and house meeting innovations have created a personal connection that, at least in theory, affirms Dean's "we're all in this together" message.

Dorie Clark, New Hampshire communications director for Dean, told me that wide-scale meetings came about because they realized that "normal canvassing wasn't very effective." The result since the summer stretch of the campaign as Dean's stature grew was an explosion of informal but focused meetings to spread the Dean gospel. Clark says by the end of November, the campaign will have run about 1,000 meetings - and plans to run 100 a week until primary day. This translates not only in more votes but potentially thousands of more new voters, another Dean campaign focus. Dean's campaign is hot right now because, out of desperation and inspiration, its far tastier than the processed, focus group mulch served up by the D.C. professional political class.

The night before Dean spoke in Rochester, I sat in on a house meeting in nearby Durham, a mostly liberal, comfortably middle-class town where the University of New Hampshire is located. The 90-minute meeting was hosted by Robin Cross, a mother of two teenage daughters, and who had never been so personally politically involved before. Cross called about 40 of her friends and acquaintances and 14 showed up to swap stories about how their kids are doing in school and to learn more about Dean. Most of the attendees are politically sophisticated and their questions cover a wide range of issues - education, environment, tort reform, gun control and whether Dean is too much of a "political novice" to take on Bush. But the dominant mood is summed up by Cross herself who told me "we gotta rid of Bush."

The Dean campaign man on the spot was James Moore, 26, a New Hampshire native who a few months earlier quit his job as a grass roots organizer at Greenpeace in Washington, D.C. "For two years I saw how things are done in D.C. I'd had enough of Bush and what he was doing especially his systematic unraveling of 30-year of environmental laws," Moore told me. "I decided I had to do something. I packed everything I had in the car and moved up here." Moore joined the campaign as an area coordinator, working 80 to 100 hours a week, and it's been an enlightening baptism as he's never worked for a political candidate before. He has been leading as many as 11 house meetings a week, he says, educating scores of engaged voters. "They range from students to housewives to everyone. What's interesting is how many have never been this involved before, Some have never registered or voted before. And we are seeing this throughout the state."

Moore said he studied the candidates before approaching the Dean campaign. He's obviously a Dean booster but not sycophant. It's clear that Dean isn't as liberal as Moore (he's amused of the portrayal of Dean as anything but a fiscally-conservative moderate) but "What interested me is his overall inclusive message and his solid stands on the issues. I was also impressed by how much he got done in Vermont." He's "happy" about Dean's environmental record and health care initiatives; merely "comfortable" with the gun control issue which Dean believes should be mostly handled by the states. But Moore has no doubt that Dean not only has the right stuff to beat Bush but has the long-term vision to lead the country out of the D.C. partisan abyss. Dean and his campaign think and plan big. "We plan to win New Hampshire twice - now and in November." Moore tells the house meeting gathering. The Dean campaign believes that when (not if) Dean wins the White House he will also bring in Democratic majorities in Congress because of the potential millions of converts who will join the crusade.

Now that he's ascended to frontrunner status and is starting to acquire establishment endorsements from unions to D.C. pols, Dean has entered the expectations labyrinth. And his rivals and media critics have unsheathed the long knives to chop him down to size. Dean is unlikely to curry press favor with nicknames and charm as W. Bush did to considerable effect in 2000 and so far, the center-left pundit chorus aren't in a courting mood. Joe Klein's sourpuss lashing of Dean in the Nov. 17 edition of Time reflects general punditburo discomfort with Dean's quasi-populist surge. After observing one of the Dean campaign's meet-up sessions, Klein writes about the therapy indulgence atmosphere (perhaps, but three years of watching the Bush reality show might prompt the need for mass therapy), castigates Dean for his excessive criticism of Bush and running a campaign hot on style but devoid of ideas - in short, a calculating Professor Harold Hill out to con the local rubes. (On the other hand, for a dose of cognitive dissonance, check out the neobolshevik scolds, especially William Safire or the Op/Ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, have faintly sung his praises, because they feel Dean is the perfect fall guy for Bush in the general election.)

His rivals are equally energetic and eclectic in taking Dean to task. In addition to the daily establishment sniping that Dean is unelectable and will sail the Dems into a McGovern-like electoral disaster, John Kerry blasts him for being a foreign policy virgin, Wesley Clark takes him to task for being insensitive to small businessmen and Joe Lieberman has taken him to task for Dean's recent Confederate flag blunder and rejecting campaign spending limits (even John Kerry's wife Theresa threw a jab at Dean for being "appealing" candidate but little more). And then there is Dick Gephardt (whom Dean supported when Gephardt ran for prez in 1988) whose campaign runs an anti-Dean web site (www.deanfacts.com) which spotlights what Gephardt insists are Dean flip-flops on core Democrat issues such as Medicare and NAFTA, to name a few (Dean says his thinking has evolved).

Dean jokes about the "buckshot in my butt" fired by his critics but he's a hardly a victim. For his part, Dean ran an ad attacking Gephardt for his Iraq war vote (a photo of Gephardt standing behind Bush at the bill signing was particularly touching). Gephardt has fired back with his own attack salvo. This early display of negative firepower is yet another reflection of how intense this primary is becoming.

There's plenty more buckshot to come.


Michael McCord is an award-winning reporter and writer living in New Hampshire. The return of Berkeley Breathed's Opus the Penguin to the comic pages has temporarily restored his faith in a relatively sane universe.


More of Michael McCord's Tales from the Primary Trail:
Gen. Wesley Clark to the Rescue?
The Unbearable Lightness of Being John Kerry

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