San Diego Union Tribune

February 3, 2004

DEAN PLAYS CATCH-UP
His campaign facing funding, poll woes


By GEORGE E. CONDON JR.
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE


FLORENCE, S.C. This isn't the way voters in the Low Country were supposed to hear about Howard Dean the day before the key South Carolina primary. The plan had been for the airwaves to be filled with commercials touting his dreams for America.

But that plan was hatched a month ago. Back when the former Vermont governor was still trying to win the primary. Back before devastating defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire left him unable to afford any commercials here or in any of the six other states up for grabs today.

So now the only time Dean's name is heard in ads is when conservative Republican Charlie Condon, the former attorney general now running for the U.S. Senate, airs his commercials blasting what he ominously calls "the Howard Dean Democrats" for wanting to dangerously weaken America in the war against terrorism.

Most Republicans here are a tad wistful now that Dean, a favorite target, is unlikely to be at the top of the Democratic ticket. But Condon said he'll keep blasting away at Dean because his views are so "starkly out of tune" with the average South Carolinian.

That's what Dean's campaign has been reduced to relying on a Republican critic to remind the voters that he's still in the race.

Only five weeks after enjoying higher poll ratings, collecting more endorsements and raking in far more money than any other Democrat, Dean enters the most important day yet of the campaign with his poll numbers plummeting, his endorsements drying up and his bank account too empty to afford even as many commercials as long-shot candidate Dennis Kucinich.

"He's a gone goose here," said Neal Thigpen, head of the department of political science at Francis Marion University in Florence. "When he pulled the plug on his ads here and in all seven states, that was kind of a surrender."

"No matter which poll you look at, this looks like a total collapse for Dean," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, the University of Southern California political analyst who spent the last two weeks monitoring the campaigns in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Dean and his new campaign brain trust angrily dispute these efforts to write him out of the race that he dominated so completely just weeks ago.

"Conventional wisdom has been consistently wrong about this race," insisted Roy Neel, who last week replaced Joe Trippi at the head of the campaign.

What Neel laid out as the new campaign strategy is nothing if not unconventional. Where previously Trippi had boasted of a 50-state strategy with serious efforts to win everywhere every week, Neel now talks only of picking up some delegates today and hoping to become "the last standing alternative to John Kerry" after the Wisconsin primary Feb. 17.

"It's laughable, just laughable," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Dean's supporters aren't laughing, of course, and few of them are eager to embrace the new strategy of progressing while losing.

"It's been a real tough time," said 24-year-old Eric Bargeron, a graduate student at the University of South Carolina who has supported Dean since August but recently attended a Kerry event in Columbia. "I am trying to decide whether to stay with him or jump ship. My number one factor is electability, and I don't think the governor is electable anymore."

He blamed the Dean campaign for the collapse, saying, "Especially in Iowa, he just kept talking about how they were going to win and stopped talking about why he should win."

John Britton, 60, a history professor at Francis Marion, said he had liked Dean's message but stopped considering him after his now-notorious concession speech in Des Moines. "I was sort of vaguely uneasy about Dean, but he became too strident in Iowa and that scene there with the speech was bothersome," Britton said.

More voters paid attention to the candidates in Iowa, and they didn't always find Dean behaving in a presidential manner.

"They decided that you can date Dean, but you better marry somebody else who is tougher and more seasoned and been around national politics a good bit longer, and that one turned out to be Kerry," Thigpen said.

Analysts disagree on the actual moment when Dean began to slide from his front-runner's perch. Some point to the Dec. 13 capture of Saddam Hussein, when Dean's somewhat sour reaction seemed at odds with a nation celebrating the news.

Jeffe put it four days earlier, Dec. 9, when former Vice President Al Gore endorsed Dean. "Dean had sold himself as an outsider, and then he began to surround himself with the most visible known political insiders in the Democratic Party, starting with Al Gore," Jeffe said. "That began to test his credibility. Then the deal was sealed or unsealed with the post-election rant."

His collapse, she said, "taught us yet again that, in the end, a campaign is only as good as its candidate. Its fortunes rise and fall with those of its candidate."

Sabato said no single event presaged the collapse, although he also dates it to December.

"The turning point," he said, "was the mid-December beginning of the onslaught that a front-runner earns from his opponents and the press. . . . People got to know things about him that they didn't like. And early doubts gradually settled into an understanding that he had feet of clay."

The Iowa speech, he said, merely "filled the gas tank with all the energy necessary to accelerate to a hundred miles an hour downhill."

Now, Dean is determined to prove, as he said yesterday, that it will be "irrelevant" if he loses all seven states today. Yesterday, Neel announced what he called "the good news" that the once-flush campaign has now raised enough money that they will be able to pay staffers and will buy ads in Wisconsin.

After what Neel called a recent "bump in the road," Dean's goal now is to survive until March 2 when the megastates of California, New York and Ohio vote.

Sabato said Dean could be forced to withdraw from the race before then to avoid becoming a joke.

And Jeffe said Californians are unlikely to embrace a candidate who has been soundly trounced in other states before March 2.

"I don't see him winning California," she said. "We are a media-driven, candidate-driven political system in California," she said, adding that Dean has not connected with the state in the way previous Democrats such as Gary Hart did in 1984 or Bill Clinton in 1992.

Further complicating the outlook for Dean, she said, is the hangover state Democrats are suffering after losing the governorship.

"I don't see a whole lot of energy among California Democrats with regard to the presidential race," she said. "They are still recovering from Arnold Schwarzenegger."