Former rival endorses Dean as '04 race tightens in Iowa

Braun's support may ease lingering racial concerns

January 16, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CARROLL, Iowa - Howard Dean, whose support from female voters and commitment to racial progress have been questioned in recent days, picked up a well-timed endorsement yesterday from a former rival who could help him with both problems in the tightening presidential contest in Iowa.

Carol Moseley Braun, the first African-American woman to serve in the Senate and the only Democratic woman in the 2004 race, abandoned her long-shot candidacy at a Dean rally here. She praised Dean's "program to put our country back on track to tax fairness, job creation, balanced budgets and an economy that works for everyone, regardless of race or sex."

Just days before Iowans cast the first meaningful votes of the presidential contest, Democratic politicians are increasingly viewing Monday night's caucuses as a competitive struggle among four contenders: Dean, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, and Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina.

Edwards, in particular, appears to be gaining ground with an upbeat message aimed at voters turned off by the negative tone of the race.

Gephardt continued his last-minute offensive against Dean with a new negative ad against the former Vermont governor, accusing him of wanting to undermine two of the Democratic Party's most popular programs, Medicare and Social Security.

Meantime, supporters of Wesley K. Clark, who has not been campaigning here, started airing a radio ad urging Iowans to support the retired general at the caucuses. Clark has concentrated on New Hampshire, which holds its primary eight days after Iowa, and polls there show him gaining on the front-running Dean.

Sen. Tom Harkin, Dean's most prominent supporter in Iowa, told reporters that he has advised Dean to strike a positive tone in advance of the caucuses. At events yesterday, Dean took pains to say that "all of my opponents are good people," before going on to criticize them.

Harkin, the state's most popular Democrat, is barnstorming the state aboard Dean's bus. At a rally Wednesday night kicking off Dean's final push, the senator described the Iowa contest as "a tight race."

He did not repeat that characterization at events yesterday in rural west-central Iowa. The Dean camp was trying to play down a new, and much-debated, public poll that showed Kerry pulling into a dead heat with Dean and Gephardt, with Edwards fourth but within striking distance of the others.

"Not much is happening in the polls," Dean insisted. Besides, he added, "polls don't matter in the last few days. It's all organization."

Dean's campaign said its internal polling shows no drop in his support. Privately, though, a senior Dean aide acknowledged what other Democrats have been saying: that Kerry and Edwards seem to be gaining as undecided voters make up their minds.

Despite questions about the validity of the new poll numbers, the widespread publicity surrounding their release - in which Kerry was immediately crowned the "new leader" in the caucus race by some Iowa news organizations - was a public-relations coup for the Massachusetts senator.

Most of the presidential campaigns in Iowa have been highly skeptical about the reliability of the daily tracking poll by Zogby International for MSNBC and Reuters. It is the only public survey of Iowa voters since a Tribune Newspapers poll more than a week ago, which showed Dean with a seven-point advantage over Gephardt, his nearest challenger.

Tracking polls often paint a misleading picture of opinion shifts, especially in caucus contests. That is particularly true of surveys such as Zogby's, which are derived from voter lists that may fail to correctly identify likely caucus participants.

Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi, whose experience with Iowa caucuses dates to the 1980s, cautioned reporters that much of the polling done in the final week of campaigns here has, historically, had "nothing to do with the outcome."

The apparent tightening of the Iowa contest followed a debate Sunday night in which Dean failed to respond effectively to sharp criticism by the Rev. Al Sharpton over Dean's failure to appoint a single minority to his Cabinet during 11 years as governor of Vermont, which is more than 96 percent white.

At the same time, the Tribune poll and other surveys have confirmed a "gender gap" in Dean's support, which Dean's campaign does not dispute. Women have been less likely than men to back Dean, these surveys have found.

Even though Braun seldom campaigned in Iowa and had attracted no measurable voter support in the state, her endorsement, from someone who has stood on the same stage with Dean at numerous candidate forums, may carry weight with some wavering caucus-goers.

"I am happy to recommend to my supporters that they stand for Howard Dean," said Braun, whose backing could ease any lingering concerns about Dean's record on racial matters.

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