Vt. Democrat's anti-war stance could be ticket from obscurity

Speaking out gives boost to long-shot '04 campaign

February 19, 2003|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HENNIKER, N.H. - Howard Dean says he didn't set out to become the anti-war candidate in the 2004 Democratic presidential contest. "I had no idea this would happen to me," he admitted as his two-car caravan sped across snowy New Hampshire.

The former Vermont governor, a physician by training, initially made universal health insurance the centerpiece of his long-shot campaign. But his sustained attack on President Bush's "reckless adventure" in Iraq is what's generating ripples of excitement in the early primary and caucus states.

As the war talk along the Potomac echoes out on the campaign trail, Dean's candidacy is filling a void: a candidate who shares the anti-war views of many Democratic voters.

The potential for such a candidate is enormous, if opinion surveys are any guide.

At least half the nation's Democratic voters oppose using U.S. military force to remove Saddam Hussein from power, according to the latest national polling. In Iowa, where the presidential voting begins, anti-war sentiment runs even higher.

Most of the party's best-known presidential contenders appear vulnerable on the war issue. Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, and Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who is formally declaring his candidacy today, voted in favor of the congressional resolution authorizing Bush to use force against Iraq.

Dean, who says he would have voted against the resolution, rarely misses an opportunity to attack his rivals for what he calls their failure to stand up to Bush. In an Iowa speech this week, he criticized Democrats in Washington "who were worried about political positioning for the presidential contest" for giving Bush a blank check to wage war against Iraq.

With so much running room to the left of the current field of Democratic candidates - and with liberals still the party's dominant faction - a fresh crop of presidential hopefuls is rushing into the 2004 race. Each of the newcomers opposes Bush's policy in the Persian Gulf.

Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who voted against the war resolution, and former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois are expected to file candidacy papers today. The Rev. Al Sharpton of New York is already running as a peace candidate.

Two others who have spoken out against Bush's Iraq plans - former Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a former supreme allied commander in Europe - have said they are thinking about running.

Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who voted against the war resolution, is expected to decide by April whether to launch a full-scale campaign. He is recuperating from open-heart surgery to replace an aortic valve.

With the exception of Graham, the latest candidates are even darker horses than Dean. At the very least, they will have to scramble to catch the 54-year-old Vermonter, whose daylong visit to New Hampshire this week was the 26th of his campaign.

About 50 activists gathered Sunday morning in a Portsmouth living room enthusiastically greeted Dean's assault on Bush's "foolish" foreign policy.

But Dean went on to say that he is "not a pacifist." If Saddam Hussein posed an immediate danger to the United States, Dean said, he would not hesitate to use unilateral military force to remove him. But the Bush administration has never made the case that there is an imminent threat, said Dean, who calls an invasion of Iraq "the wrong war at the wrong time."

To applause, Dean argued that the United States should be more concerned with the dangers posed by North Korea's nuclear program and the al-Qaida terrorist network.

New Hampshire isn't the anti-war hotbed that Iowa and other states are. But many here remember how opposition to the Vietnam War helped Democratic maverick Eugene McCarthy drive Lyndon B. Johnson from the White House by embarrassing him in the state's 1968 presidential primary.

How far the Iraq issue can carry Dean, or any anti-war candidate, in the 2004 contest is by no means clear. Interviews with Democratic voters in the state found that many of those who are strongly anti-war don't consider Iraq a litmus-test issue.

Rick Katzenberg of Amherst opposes military action but won't rule out supporting a Democratic candidate who voted in favor of the war resolution. But that vote, he said, "is a major hurdle they will have to climb back over" in order to gain his support.

Others noted that, as U.S. forces mass for a possible invasion in the next few weeks, war in Iraq could be a fading memory when the primaries begin in January.

But "even if Iraq becomes moot six months from now, Dean is going to be a vastly more visible and credible candidate because of what he's saying now," said Peter S. Smith, a Durham lawyer and party activist.

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