Don't Get Too Cocky, Dr. Dean

The ex-governor has a long way to go before becoming the nominee. He'll have to expand his base and calm fears of a GOP rout

Howard Dean's Presidential express is chugging out of the station, transforming a onetime insurgent into what looks like an unstoppable force. Dean's Dec. 9 endorsement by Establishment favorite Al Gore confirmed what many party pundits have sensed for weeks: The Vermonter with the brusque bedside manner has become the odds-on favorite to win the nomination.

Favorite, yes. Nominee-in-waiting -- not quite yet. While there's no denying that the former Vermont governor has become the man with the mo, it's premature to anoint him before the balloting begins (see BW Online, 12/11/03, "Debating Dems Find New Nemeses"). That's because Dean has yet to broaden his base from a narrow core of idealistic college students and old-time lefties. Nor has Dean laid to rest the worries that his Bush-bashing campaign could lead to crushing Democratic setbacks in 2004. Among the questions that remain:

Dysfunction at the Junction. It's traditional for Democrats to run leftward in the early going, but Dean's populism risks a breach with party moderates. He ditched Clinton-era fealty to free trade. Unlike many rivals, he would repeal all of President Bush's tax cuts, even those for the middle class. He is stridently antiwar. And he paints a dire picture of an economy that's captive to sinister corporate giants.

Partly because he is locked in a tight battle with fellow liberal Missouri Representative Richard A. Gephardt in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses, Dean is still barreling down the left side of the tracks. Yet he was viewed as a tightwad governor, sought Medicare cost curbs, and favors gun ownership. "Now that Dean is the front-runner, the timetable moves up for a shift to the center," says strategist Kenneth Baer. "He has to do that without alienating a fervent group of [core] supporters."

High Noon. So far, the campaign has been an easy glide for Dean. Too easy. He may yet face a climactic duel with a centrist foe -- most likely ex-General Wesley K. Clark. After a shaky start, Clark is getting his act together, and he's poised to collect more than $10 million in the current quarter. The cash will blanket states with ads depicting Dean as George McGovern in a white smock.

Here's a scenario to ponder: Dean comes in second in the Iowa caucuses. He goes on to take first place in the Jan. 27 primary in New Hampshire -- only to find a surging Clark right behind him. The showdown finally happens on Feb. 3, when Clark sets out to ambush Dean in more moderate states such as South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Arizona. "The fact that Dean is adamantly against tax cuts could hurt him -- that and his stand on gay marriage," says Susan A. MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. "Besides, the antiwar thing doesn't play well in the South."

Narrow Appeal. Thus far, Dean's base is dominated by Net-heads and highly educated liberals. He needs to connect more solidly with other constituencies. First, there are black voters. Most African Americans don't know Dean, and many who do bristle at his clumsy remarks on the Confederate flag.

Then there are those missing Deanies in America's upscale suburbs, where Dean's populist rants alarm the investor class. "Most suburban voters believe big corporations are getting too much of a break from George W. Bush," says pollster Mark J. Penn. "But they also believe in sensible pro-growth policies. They think wholesale re-regulation would cost America jobs."

Can Dean meet these challenges? Absolutely. In truth, he has been far more nimble than many pundits reckoned. And there's no denying that Dean has galvanized once-apathetic young people and Democrats who want the party to stand for something besides low-cal Republicanism.

But unless -- and until -- the internist with the sharp scalpel shows that he can articulate an inclusive message, don't rush out and order Dr. Dean's prescription. There's still a primary battle to be won, and Dean hasn't won it...yet.

By Lee Walczak and Alexandra Starr, with Richard S. Dunham in Durham, N.H.

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