Democrats give D.C. the brushoff

December 31, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - While most of the 2004 Democratic presidential candidates flock to Iowa and New Hampshire for the two states' highly publicized contests for national convention delegates next month, the first actual primary - here in the District of Columbia - is getting the cold shoulder from them.

The District will hold a preferential, or "beauty contest," primary Jan. 13, six days before the Iowa precinct caucuses and two weeks before the "real" New Hampshire primary at which convention delegates will actually be elected.

Only four of the nine declared candidates - former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and Rep. Dennis Kucinich - are entered. In a recent WTOP-AM radio poll, Dr. Dean was running far ahead, with 45 percent of the voters surveyed, to 11 for Mr. Sharpton, 8 for Ms. Braun and 4 for Mr. Kucinich.

The five others - Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark - have had their names removed from the ballot.

The five have knuckled under to the call of Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe to boycott the D.C. primary in deference to the traditional kickoff states of Iowa and New Hampshire, which are protected by party law in their positions at the head of the delegate-selection calendar.

It may seem much ado about very little, inasmuch as Washington is entitled to only 38 delegates and has only three electoral votes in the general election. The D.C. Democratic Party at first risked not being seated at the national convention in Boston in July by planning a regular primary before the Iowa and New Hampshire contests.

The idea was that getting shut out of the convention would pointedly dramatize the District's status as a poor cousin in both the Democratic Party and in Congress, where it has no voting representation and only a single nonvoting delegate in the House of Representatives.

The Washington party finally agreed, however, to conduct only the "beauty contest" as a gauge of sentiment, with the actual convention delegates to be chosen in a later primary in mid-February. The District Democrats still hope to bring national attention to their plight - and their longtime bid for statehood - during the preferential primary.

The boycott by the five candidates seems to have ruffled fewer feathers, however, than the attitude of Dr. Dean toward the preferential primary in which a poll has him leading by such a wide margin. On four visits to the District over the last two months, according to a local critic, he has not mentioned the primary nor asked District voters to cast a ballot for him in it.

Radio political commentator Mark Plotkin, a Washington Democratic activist, says he got the brushoff when he asked Dr. Dean directly why he doesn't talk up the D.C. primary, which is opposed by Chairman McAuliffe.

Dr. Dean's attitude runs counter to the existence of an active "Dean for President" group here that has been meeting in large numbers monthly. The District is expected to hand Dr. Dean an easy primary victory in a jurisdiction that usually votes 77 percent Democratic and has a majority-black population - a constituency in which he is regarded to have only modest support.

According to Mr. Plotkin, the Dean campaign has also said the former governor will not take part in a debate here Jan. 9, pleading a schedule conflict. But City Councilman Adrian M. Fenty, a Dean backer, says he will be urging him to do so. Mr. Plotkin asks why Dr. Dean has bothered to enter the primary and to come to the District to raise money and other support for his national campaign when he treats it so cavalierly.

Winning Iowa and New Hampshire obviously is infinitely more important to Dr. Dean than a preferential primary in Washington at which no convention delegates are at stake. Yet since he has already dropped by the District a few times, his silence on the primary is baffling.

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

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