Anybody but Dean?

October 27, 2003|By Jules Witcover

NASHUA, N.H. - There's a phenomenon in politics known as "buyer's remorse." Like a shopper who chooses an expensive new car and then has second thoughts, it refers to a candidate who wins strong early support, only to trigger a desire among voters to change their minds.

It occurred most conspicuously in 1976, when Jimmy Carter won a series of early primaries and was on his way to the Democratic presidential nomination when doubts arose about whether he could beat Republican President Gerald Ford.

The result was late-starting candidacies by Gov. Jerry Brown of California and Sen. Frank Church of Idaho. Between the two of them, they won most of the remaining primaries, but it was too late to deny Mr. Carter the nomination. The Democratic Party was stuck with a candidate who turned out to be the next president of the United States.

What's happening now in the emergence of retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark as a presidential candidate here is an early version of buyer's remorse, even before the sale on the Democratic front-runner, former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, has been closed.

Mr. Dean has been a phenomenon, emerging on the strength of unprecedented fund raising and volunteer-building over the Internet as the Democratic candidate to beat. Already the rallying cry of anti-Dean Democrats is heard - that, if nominated, he can't beat President Bush, and that the relatively late-starting Mr. Clark would be the possible savior.

All this is very premature, to be sure. Mr. Dean, after sprinting ahead in the lead-up to the Iowa precinct caucuses Jan. 19, now finds himself in a tough fight with Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of neighboring Missouri, the early favorite in Iowa.

But here in New Hampshire, Mr. Dean is running well ahead in the latest polls against Sen. John Kerry of neighboring Massachusetts. Mr. Clark is bypassing Iowa to take his chances in a primary election in which celebrity may make up for a lack of the sort of organization Mr. Dean and Mr. Kerry have been building for a year or more.

As a result, buyer's remorse may already be setting in. It's a concern that Mr. Dean's national campaign manager, Joe Trippi, had more than a month ago when I discussed the phenomenon with him in Burlington, Vt. So confident was Mr. Trippi then that Mr. Dean could win in both Iowa and New Hampshire that he was speculating on the identity of the candidate who might be the beneficiary of doubts about Mr. Dean's electability.

The assumption in such speculation was that Mr. Gephardt could be disposed of in Iowa and Mr. Kerry in New Hampshire if each failed to win in his backyard. At that time, the name of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York was still being floated around, but the candidate who now seems best fitted for the role of Dean-stopper, if it comes to that, is Mr. Clark.

One new circumstance, however, may mar the rosy Dean scenario: Only one week after the New Hampshire primary, seven states from Delaware and South Carolina to Arizona and New Mexico will hold delegate-selecting contests in which other candidates could benefit from buyer's remorse, or from late-blooming strength of their own.

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, while making major efforts to beat low expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire, is keying on South Carolina for a breakthrough. And Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, also bypassing Iowa and running weakly here so far, is looking to Arizona and elsewhere after New Hampshire to gain traction.

Whenever the Democrats are faced with a potential nominee who doesn't look like a winner in the general election - George McGovern in 1972 is another example - an "anybody but" phenomenon occurs. But in the cases of Mr. Carter and Mr. McGovern, the sentiment surfaced late. The surprising thing this time around is that buyer's remorse is stirring well before the Democratic Party has "bought" anyone as its nominee.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau and his column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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