Early voting may seal contest

Dean could wrap up Democratic nomination within one month

Early primaries could seal contest

January 04, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DES MOINES, Iowa - With the candidates hurtling toward the first 2004 presidential vote two weeks from tomorrow, the contest comes down to this: The nomination could be decided earlier than ever - before most Democrats cast primary ballots or even learn much about their likely nominee.

If that happens, the winner will be Howard Brush Dean III, a still largely unknown politician whose phenomenal rise to pre-eminence in a crowded field is the story of the race so far.

Dean expects to be a target of renewed attacks when the candidates meet in a televised debate today in Iowa, a prelude to the Jan. 19 caucuses. The longest of long shots when he announced his candidacy, Dean could have the nomination in his grasp as soon as a month from now.

Dean, a former Vermont governor, has said he "never expected to be in this position when we started this campaign."

Nor did Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, who successfully pushed for the creation of this year's compressed primary calendar. The new system features a rush of contests in February and early March that could make it difficult to reverse the momentum of an early front-runner.

Democratic leaders designed this accelerated schedule to produce a quick winner so that their party could unite and launch its campaign against President Bush as early as possible.

And the Democrats might well get a nominee swiftly. But he might not be the candidate the system was presumed to favor: an established figure with deep ties to Democratic fund-raising sources and party officials across the country.

Instead, the strong favorite going into the primaries is Dean, an outsider from a tiny state that has fewer residents than Baltimore. He is following an arduous path blazed by another former governor, Jimmy Carter, who also started earlier than his rivals and ran virtually nonstop for almost two years before the first primaries and caucuses.

Dean's aggressive, and at times angry, rhetoric has exploited a deep pool of partisan resentment against Bush. It also tapped the frustration of millions of Democrats who feel that their party's Washington-based power structure has been too eager to cooperate with the Republican president, especially on Iraq. Dean was an early and vocal critic of the war, while most of his major rivals supported it.

In recent weeks, Dean's progress has touched off an increasingly vicious backlash from the other Democratic candidates. The anti-Dean effort has featured the sort of sharp, almost desperate, rhetoric that usually surfaces in the closing stages of a presidential contest, when one contender seems to have the nomination within reach.

"It's probably slowed a little of Dean's momentum," said Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes an independent political newsletter. "But I don't think it's damaged his chances of winning the nomination at all."

Financial advantage

Dean built his organization by brilliantly exploiting the Internet as a tool for raising money and building a base of enthusiastic supporters. The more than $40 million he raised last year gives him a lopsided financial advantage over his opponents, a reliable predictor of success in modern nomination races.

His eight rivals (a ninth, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, has dropped out) include several highly regarded members of Congress. One of them, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, was the 2000 vice presidential nominee. All have struggled to gain an advantage - or in many cases, notice - in Dean's wake.

Despite Dean's clear edge, his nomination is by no means assured. Several key questions remain unanswered: Who exactly is Dean, and how well would he run against Bush? Which rival will emerge as his main Democratic challenger? How long will it take for the nomination to be decided?

Dean was a social liberal and fiscal moderate in Vermont, but he has blurred his image since starting his presidential run. As a centrist governor for 11 years, he insisted on balanced budgets, even though Vermont is the only state that does not require one by law. He signed a pioneering civil unions law, giving gay partners the same legal rights as married couples, though he opposes gay marriage.

A foe of strict gun control, he has sought to portray himself as independent-minded - helped along by an impulsive streak that sometimes leads him to make impolitic remarks. During the campaign, he has moved closer to liberal Democrats, who are more likely to vote in primaries. Though he sometimes tilted toward business interests as governor, he has successfully courted organized labor as a presidential candidate, shifting away from free trade and toward protectionism in the process.

Anti-war stance

Dean, a physician by training, says he never set out to be the anti-war candidate in the race, though that stance has been crucial to his success.

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