Dean's lead puts target on his back

December 26, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Political candidates at every level, whether they're running for dogcatcher or president, but especially if they're trailing in the polls, like to say the only poll that counts is the one at the ballot box on Election Day.

That's certainly true, but at the presidential level, at least, perceptions of who's ahead and who's behind can become a real factor when candidates' responses to polling numbers affect their decisions and behavior.

The current example is the way the rest of the field for the 2004 Democratic nomination is reacting to surveys indicating former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is threatening to run away with the prize even before a vote is cast anywhere.

His strong poll numbers in advance of the precinct caucuses in Iowa on Jan. 19 and the presidential primary in New Hampshire eight days later are persuading the other contenders to subject Dr. Dean to the sort of attacks against a front-runner usually reserved for much later in the process.

The most recent poll in Iowa by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press has Dr. Dean leading the regional favorite, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of neighboring Missouri, 29 percent to 21, with Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts at 18.

In New Hampshire, Dr. Dean is holding leads of nearly 3-to-l over fellow New Englander Kerry in the polls in a race widely considered to be a contest for second place behind Dr. Dean.

If the past were a guide, the questions being raised against Dr. Dean by his rivals would be expected to be withheld at least until voters from a state or two had spoken. More than once, early front-runners going into the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary have been upset.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan lost the Iowa caucuses to the senior George Bush, leading one prominent network reporter the next morning to declare Mr. Reagan "dead." He bounced back in New Hampshire a few weeks later.

In 1992, Bill Clinton ran second to Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts in the New Hampshire primary in the wake of accusations of sexual misconduct. Mr. Clinton made the most of it by declaring himself "the Comeback Kid."

In these cases, there was no "Stop Reagan" or "Stop Clinton" effort or chorus at that early stage. One reason was that the delegate-selection process in those years was stretched out over several months, and it was not until later that either man was widely acknowledged as rolling toward his party's nomination.

But with the aggressive front-loading of the primary/caucus calendar for 2004, nine states and the District of Columbia will vote in the three weeks between Jan. 13 (in Washington, D.C.) and Feb. 3, and another 25 by March 2. In that time, well more than half of all Democratic national convention delegates will be chosen, and it's likely the nominee will be known.

Dr. Dean could stumble, especially as the schedule heads south and west Feb. 3 (including South Carolina, Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico). But with a growing army of first-time volunteers and voters, and a campaign treasury fattened via the Internet that will enable him to run everywhere, his rivals are already in a frenetic "Stop Dean" mode.

The effort is fueled by polls that raise the question of his electability against President Bush, especially in light of the bump the president has received from improved economic indicators and the capture of Saddam Hussein.

Temporarily, at least, the latter event has caused many Democrats to ask whether Dr. Dean's aggressive opposition to the Iraq invasion and handling of the aftermath would scuttle his chances against Mr. Bush in the general election. In the meantime, though, that posture seems to be sustaining his support within his party.

His rivals, however, are not waiting for the first caucus and primary votes to be cast. Their actions indicate they believe the polls and therefore must challenge him now, on everything from his electability to his consistency on issues, before it's too late to stop his march to the nomination.

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

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