By Richard S. Dunham
It's often said that endorsements carry little weight in politics. While that's usually true, the importance of former Vice-President Al Gore's backing of Democratic insurgent-turned-front-runner Howard Dean cannot be underestimated.
Gore's announcement at a Dean event in Harlem on Dec. 9 contains some very important messages -- to the party faithful, the party establishment, and Dean's flailing and failing primary rivals. Here's why it's significant:
Forget Hillary: Gore is telling Democratic primary voters that the nomination fight is over. Millions of party loyalists firmly believe that the ex-Veep is a political martyr who won the popular vote in the 2000 Presidential contest, only to emerge a victim of Republican chicanery. Even before the first ballot is cast, Honest Al is telling the faithful that Howard Dean is going to win the nomination, so rally around him.
It's also a message targeted to his party's political intelligentsia -- stop pining for Hillary Clinton. He's telling Democratic moderates that it's a waste of time and energy to engage in a Stop Dean movement. And he's warning the other Democratic primary candidates not to give the Republicans general-election fodder by savaging Dean in an attempt to salvage their own campaigns.
The Dean endorsement also sends a pretty clear message to Gore's 2000 running mate, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, who learned of the event from reporters, rather than from Gore himself. The gist of it: "Joe, your campaign is going nowhere. I love ya, baby, but get out now before you embarrass yourself. You don't want to end up with 2% of the vote in New Hampshire. Bow out now." Tough love. But there comes a time when all savvy pols have to face reality.
Getting Even: Gore's decision also is a reminder to longtime political veterans that the man from Tennessee has a long memory. Don't get mad, get even, goes the old political axiom. Back in the 1988 Democratic primaries, Gore and Missouri Representative Dick Gephardt brutally attacked each other on the campaign trail, as both were angling for the votes of moderate Democrats.
My favorite moment came during a debate in Houston. Responding to one Gore remark, Gephardt said his rival sounded more like Al Haig (the ex-general, then a right-tilting GOP Presidential candidate) than Al Gore. Without missing a beat, Gore shot back that the Missourian sounded more like Dick Nixon than Dick Gephardt.
While the two have kissed and made up on several occasions (Michael Dukakis ultimately won the 1988 Democratic nomination), Gore's endorsement of Dean could help to bury Gephardt's 2004 Presidential ambitions in the snows of Iowa. Recent polls show Dean edging ahead of Gephardt in the must-win state for the veteran Washington insider. The Dec. 9 endorsement of Dean has to be unsettling news for Gephardt.
Picking Up Gore's Theme: Of course, Gore has positive reasons for embracing Dean. The former Vermont governor has taken the former Veep's 2000 campaign theme -- "the people against the powerful" -- and has made it a national crusade. Gore's strategy to strike populist notes back then drew harrumphs from many pundits and party pros. It wouldn't work on the national stage, they sniffed. Well, Gore got half a million votes more than George Bush.
Now, the Dean campaign is musing, if Gore can just deliver Florida...
Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht