Dean's 50-state strategy

December 24, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - The significance of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's decision to finance his campaign without federal money is emerging in a 50-state strategy designed to outgun the rest of the 2004 Democratic presidential field.

While the eight other Democratic candidates focus on next month's kickoff Iowa precinct caucuses and New Hampshire primary, Dr. Dean's self-financed campaign is already staffing and planning heavy spending in many states beyond the opening round of delegate-selecting contests.

The ambitious initiative is patterned after the successful 50-state strategy of another small-state governor and early Democratic long shot, Jimmy Carter of Georgia in 1976. Mr. Carter scored a breakthrough in Iowa and New Hampshire and was never caught afterward.

A mark of Mr. Carter's success was his ability to run in every state and to post at least one victory on every election day during the primary period. That performance maintained his image as a winner even in the later stages of the 1976 Democratic contest. Late-entering Sen. Frank Church of Idaho and Gov. Jerry Brown of California combined to defeat him in nine of 11 states contested by one or both of them in the late spring. During the same period, Mr. Carter won in seven others.

Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi outlined his version of the strategy in a recent telephone conference call with reporters. He insisted that the other Democratic candidates are already being forced into a "one- or two-state strategy" to stop Dr. Dean as a result of his early spurt in the polls and big lead in fund raising.

Dr. Dean's decision to forgo the federal subsidy and thus escape spending limits imposed by federal campaign finance law, Mr. Trippi said, makes Dr. Dean the only Democratic candidate who can organize effectively in all 50 states. The practical result of that decision, Mr. Trippi said, is that only Dr. Dean will have the resources to compete in the post-primary period with President Bush, who also has rejected federal money. The president is well on the way to raising as much as $200 million to spend between now and the federally financed national conventions next summer.

One other Democratic candidate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, has also decided to avoid spending limits by turning down the federal subsidy, but his fund raising has not been nearly as effective as Dr. Dean's.

Most of the other candidates also are planning beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, but are concentrating on several of seven states that hold delegate-selection events a week after the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary. In South Carolina, Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico, Dean TV ads already are running, or soon will be, nonstop until voting day.

Mr. Trippi says the Dean campaign also has staff up and running in other states with later contests, such as Michigan, Virginia, Wisconsin, Utah, Florida, Texas, New York and California, and has ads ready to go in 17 states, along with grass-roots operations in all 50.

Another indication of the down-the-road strategy of the Dean campaign came recently in a 30-minute TV biography of the Vermonter in Madison, Wis., a state that will vote Feb. 17. Mr. Trippi said the inexpensive airing in a relatively small market was a test not only to introduce Dr. Dean but also to raise money and recruit more volunteers.

Mr. Trippi expressed confidence that Dr. Dean would win both Iowa and New Hampshire, but in any event would move on to compete at a high level in all the other states. Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman and John Edwards and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark are particularly concentrating on the primaries Feb. 3.

One main difference between the situation Mr. Carter faced and this one is that the primary schedule is much more tightly compressed than it was in 1976. Then, the race was more a marathon, stretched out over four months. This time, with the calendar front-loaded heavily from January to early March, it's more of a sprint. Dr. Dean's well-financed campaign argues it has more fuel with which to go all out from the start.

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

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