Dean seems unfazed by intensifying criticism

In N.H. town halls, he stays on anti-war message while deflecting rivals' charges

December 23, 2003|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CONCORD, N.H. - The candles of the menorah glowed inside a white Victorian house Sunday night as Howard Dean's New Hampshire campaign staff gathered for a Hanukkah party at the home of its bubbly 19- year-old office manager, Rachel Sobelson.

As Sobelson's mother shredded potatoes for another batch of latkes, the presidential candidate surprised the hosts with a visit. It was his last stop after a day traveling the ice-glazed hamlets of the state, talking with voters in school gyms and at a holiday event in Manchester, where he spoke after an appearance by juggling acrobats.

Dean, a Congregationalist Christian whose wife and children are Jewish, sang the Hebrew blessing over the candles (happily repeating it for an Israeli TV journalist who happened to be following him that day), and joined in Hanukkah songs with his exuberant young Corona-drinking staff.

The high-spirited party was an apt picture of a buoyant Dean campaign, with the first presidential contests just four weeks away. Though the Democratic front-runner had spent much of the day fending off intensifying criticism from other contenders - "I've been picking the buckshot out of my rear end," he told a crowd in Manchester that evening, using a now-familiar line - he and his staff seemed unfazed.

Indeed, here in the first primary state, where the former Vermont governor basks in a luxury-sized lead in the polls, Dean's fierce anti-Bush, anti-Iraq-war message still stirs Democrats, even as the president enjoys foreign policy successes such as the capture of Saddam Hussein.

And the fiery rhetoric that propelled Dean's candidacy remains as biting as ever.

"Our president is principally vinegar," he told voters in Hampstead, saying that he would do a better job of building global alliances.

Still, at town hall meetings around the state over the past two days, Dean had to spend time responding to charges by some of his rivals that his lack of national security experience - and his recent remark that America was no safer because of Hussein's capture - made him unfit to be commander in chief.

A `resume problem'

Dean said he has as much foreign policy experience as Bill Clinton had as a candidate, "and he got to be president." But he also acknowledged his lack of credentials in international affairs, calling it a "resume problem" that he would solve by choosing a running mate with such a background.

"I need to plug that hole in the resume, and I'm going to do that with a running mate," he told a town hall meeting in Litchfield. "There are plenty of really good people with an enormous amount of foreign policy experience that can fit that criteria."

(One of Dean's rivals, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, said Sunday that Dean had asked him earlier this year to be his running mate should Dean win the nomination. But Dean denied yesterday that he had made any such offer.)

At every campaign stop, Dean stood by his much-maligned statement that Hussein's capture had not made the United States any safer, noting that the administration raised the nation's terrorism alert status over the weekend.

"I think it's great that we got Saddam," Dean said in a school gym in Hampstead. "Saddam was a horrible person. He deserves whatever we give him. But the fact is, we are not safer. And why is that? Because Iraq was never an imminent threat to the United Sates. But al-Qaida is. And North Korea is. And Iran is. And we are not paying attention to the stuff we need to pay attention to."

Dean, who has raised more money than any of his competitors and now has journalists from as far away as Switzerland following his campaign, also tried to counter arguments, backed by national polls, that he could not defeat President Bush in a general election.

When asked by a voter why he is the best Democrat to unseat the Republican president, Dean said he would borrow a strategy used by Karl Rove, Bush's political mastermind, and try to mobilize the party's core voters.

Follow `Rove's theory'

"Our whole approach to this is to do what they're doing," said Dean, a moderate as governor who, as a presidential hopeful, connected with his party's liberal base with his early, outspoken opposition to the Iraq war.

"We're going to energize the daylights out of the Democratic Party and the people who voted third party last time," Dean said.

"Rove's theory - which has worked for the last three years - is that if you energize your own base and get them really excited and really well-organized, the people in the middle who have characteristics of both parties are drawn toward the party with the greatest energy, the greatest enthusiasm and the greatest hope," he said.

But the issue of electability - and the concern that the Vermonter will appeal mostly to left-of-center voters who are angry at the Bush administration - is still one that gives some Democrats pause.

Carl Wallman, 59, a retired farmer from Pittsfield, said he had hoped that Clark would catch fire, believing the retired general might do better than Dean against Bush.

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