Attacking Dean goes bipartisan

December 08, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - The Democratic rivals of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, concerned that he may already be running away with their party's presidential nomination, have been making a punching bag of him.

In candidate debates, television commercials and press releases, several of them have been using whatever means available short of physical mayhem to slow Dr. Dean's Internet-driven march to the delegate-selecting caucuses and primaries, which start next month.

This reaction is hardly unprecedented; front-running candidates almost always are subjected to such efforts. What makes Dr. Dean such a target of the intra-party assaults is that, coming out of nowhere onto the national political stage, his life and political record invite special scrutiny.

Accordingly, his recent disinclination to make public all records of his 11-year governorship in Vermont has intensified demands for full disclosure. In what is becoming familiar carelessness, Dr. Dean said he would release them when President Bush made public all his records as governor of Texas, only to be told that Mr. Bush had already done so.

Now Dr. Dean has cited certain complications in getting the records released, including a lawsuit against him, and his campaign says it is seeking ways to overcome them. That hardly should be an insurmountable task for a candidate who endlessly tells voters he's a straight shooter with nothing to hide.

More revealing of concern about Dr. Dean's march toward the Democratic nomination than the attacks of his party foes is the opening of similar salvos from the Republican side. The other day, none other than Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie traipsed up to Vermont, where he rapped Dr. Dean for not disclosing all of his gubernatorial records.

After that, a conservative group called the Club for Growth began airing a television ad labeling Dr. Dean a liberal by showing pictures of Democratic liberal nominees George McGovern, Walter F. Mondale and Michael S. Dukakis.

The ad, being shown in Iowa and New Hampshire at a cost of $100,000 in each state, says, "Howard Dean says he'll raise taxes on the average family by more than $1,900 a year" by boosting taxes on income, married couples, capital gains, dividends and inheritances.

The Dean campaign quickly responded with an ad saying President Bush was "hiding behind negative ads that falsely accuse Howard Dean." Campaign manager Joe Trippi chimed in, declaring, "The general election is already under way, and ... the Republicans are beginning to understand that the greatest grass-roots campaign in modern history poses a serious threat to their special interest friends."

Mr. Trippi said in a later telephone conference call that "it's very clear they want to stop us and they want to stop us right now." An appeal for funds to pay for the response ad had already raised $166,000, he said, and would shortly reach the $200,000 needed to match the cost of the attack ad.

"We're not going to let any attacks go unanswered," he said, and the campaign has the grass-roots support to make it possible to respond. "The other campaigns don't seem to get it that when they're attacking us they're attacking thousands and thousands of Americans" committed to Dr. Dean. In the response ad, Dr. Dean made the same argument, appealing to his highly charged supporters with the tag line: "I approved this message because they're not trying to stop me, they're trying to stop you."

What the attacks, both Democratic and Republican, confirm, Mr. Trippi said, is that "the focus of the campaign is about Howard Dean." That fact is incontrovertible right now. And that's why it's all the more necessary for Dr. Dean to have his facts straight before he speaks.

Not knowing that Mr. Bush's gubernatorial records in Texas had already been released made Dr. Dean look like an irresponsible hip-shooter. It's a reputation he can ill afford with the guns of the opposition intensifying their fire at him as the contest for the Democratic nomination approaches decision time next month in the early caucuses and primaries.

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

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