Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean is a master of timing. His appearance in Jacksonville, Florida on election day 2003 served several purposes. It signaled very clearly to the incumbent president that Dean, the putative frontrunner for next year’s Democratic presidential nomination, believes that Florida is in play in 2004 and that the Bush team can’t count on Florida this time around despite its obvious institutional advantages. An audacious move, given that last time around Jacksonville was beset with election irregularities like prohibitively long lines and misplaced voter registrations in precincts near the city’s urban core.
That said, Dean’s Jacksonville “Breakfast Meeting” visit sends a message to people besides Karl Rove and the other G.O.P. professionals. Dean understands that Bob Graham’s recent withdrawal from the campaign opens a door to the Democratic base that had previously been closed to the insurgent. When Graham was in the running, polls showed that the Senator had upwards of 50% support among likely Florida primary voters. Running a distant second was Connecticut senator Lieberman, who seemingly maintained residual loyalty and support from his failed VP bid three years ago especially in the southern part of the state. Many professionals assumed it was best to leave the state to the Lieberman machine.
But Howard Dean is not your typical professional politician. The biggest political story of the 2004 Campaign, Dean has parlayed a series of longshot bets into frontrunner status [such as his opposition to the Iraqi invasion and his support for civil unions].
But just when Dean was being defined by party moderates as too left-wing for the general election, Dean resourcefully took the initiative and redefined himself before the criticisms stuck. The former Governor repeated time and again his support of military action in Afghanistan [effectively repeating time and again that “they killed three thousand of our people so US action in Afghanistan was justified”]. Despite hiring former AIPAC president Steven Grossman as head of his campaign fundraising, Dean took heat across the board when he called for an “even-handed” approach to the Israeli/Palestinian issue. Further controversy ensued when the candidate said that he sought to represent people with Confederate flags in the back of their trucks; Senator Kerry chided Dean for appealing to atavists, then piously intoned his desire to be the NAACP candidate. Whatever can be said about Dean, he doesn’t shy away from what more conventional minds interpret as glaring contradictions; arguably, he embraces them in a manner not seen in American politics since Carter in 1976 [another small-state Governor who came from relative obscurity to score the Democratic nomination].
And so far, Howard Dean has not suffered for taking idiosyncratic stances. The 100 people in attendance at the Omni Hotel represented a fairly broad cross-section of the Democratic Party. Well-heeled middle aged women mixed comfortably with members of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades [IUPAT]. The retired Service members in attendance that this reporter spoke with, tellingly, were hopeful that a Dean/Clark ticket would emerge from the 2004 Convention. A self-identified gay man I spoke to who was holding a Dean For America placard said that he thought the Confederate flag flap was “pathetic desperation”; a black community college student in attendance expressed the same sentiment. [Given Dean’s waffling on his minority outreach initiative in the last few days, it could be argued that these supporters had more faith in Dean’s words than did the candidate himself].
Like Carter, it could be said that Dean has a Southern Strategy, one that seems predicated on certain reasonable assumptions. For Dean to win, certain conditions would have to prevail. The War on Terror will have to appear botched and the economy wrecked, for starters; uncertainty in those areas will erode Bush’s “Heartland” base more quickly than anything else. Also, Dean would be well-advised to gain a majority of delegates before going to Boston this summer; a brokered convention [as this column has argued] would augur poorly for him as compared to a “compromise choice” like Senator Hillary Clinton. The primaries themselves may be rigged in the favor of insiders, but a brokered convention would be undoubtedly worse for an insurgent candidate like Dr. Dean.
But can it really be said that Dean is still an insurgent? Representative Corrine Brown [a Congressional Black Caucus mainstay who does not back losers] offered a tacit endorsement, soaking in the applause with Dean after he finished speaking. And when asked if he had a Southern Strategy by this reporter, his response was blunt: “to win." Howard Dean is a candidate to take very seriously, as all elements of the traditional Democratic coalition seem able to overlook their differences and unite behind him, a full year from the general election and months before the March 9th Florida Primary.