Union Tribune

December 10, 2003

Dean bandwagon rolls past debate rivals
Dean camp shrugs off rivals' show of hands


DURHAM, N.H. Shrugging off Al Gore's endorsement, Howard Dean's eight rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination declared by a show of hands last night that they don't believe the former Vermont governor can defeat President Bush.

In a debate on the campus of the University of New Hampshire, the other candidates complained that Gore's endorsement of the front-runner represented an attempt to dictate a winner in advance of next year's primary election campaign.

They resisted a suggestion by moderator Ted Koppel, host of ABC's "Nightline," that sagging polls and money shortages soon would force at least some of them to the sidelines although voting won't begin until the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19.

Even though Gore's endorsement clearly added to Dean's momentum yesterday, Dean was spared the kind of attacks that had caused earlier debates to turn contentious.

Sponsored by ABC News and aired nationally, the encounter presented a wide-ranging policy discussion that focused most intensely on the U.S. occupation of Iraq, with Dean saying more clearly than before that U.S. forces cannot be withdrawn precipitously from that country, despite his insistence that the war was misguided in the first place.

But with Koppel and another questioner, local television anchor Scott Spradling, focusing on the implications of Gore's endorsement during the early minutes of the debate, Dean's competitors seemed on the defensive from the beginning.

Koppel started the debate by asking for a show of hands on the question of whether Dean could defeat Bush. Only Dean raised his hand as the others registered votes of no confidence in their outspoken rival, who has made his opposition to the war in Iraq and his disdain for Bush the trademarks of his candidacy.

In perhaps the strongest condemnation of Dean's potential as a general election opponent against Bush, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut suggested that his party needed to reaffirm the positions of President Clinton in support of a strong defense and tax cuts for the middle class.

In previous debates, Lieberman has characterized Dean as being at odds with the Clinton record in those areas.

"Howard Dean and now Al Gore, I guess are on the wrong side of each of those issues," said Lieberman, who was Gore's running mate in the 2000 presidential election.

In a response to the endorsement that seemed to summarize the objections of others on the stage, the Rev. Al Sharpton said, "Al Gore went to New York today. He should have noticed Tammany Hall is not there anymore. Bossism is not in this party."

Later, Dean rose to Gore's defense, saying, "If you guys are upset that Al Gore is endorsing me, attack me, don't attack Al Gore.

"Al Gore worked too hard in 2000 to lose that election, when he really didn't lose the election. He got 500,000 votes more than George Bush.

"And I don't think he deserves to be attacked by anybody up here. He doesn't he's not a boss."

By the end of the debate, however, Dean appeared not to have suffered any significant wounds from his rivals. Meanwhile, his rivals, including retired Gen. Wesley Clark, Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards, Reps. Dick Gephardt and Dennis Kucinich, and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, left the stage still apparently lacking strategies for stopping Dean.

Even before Gore's move, recent New Hampshire polls showed Dean with a lead of almost 30 points over Kerry, once a presumptive front-runner but now a struggling also-ran in most surveys.

Kerry's attempts to maintain his footing have raised the possibility that he might have difficulty holding on to second place in the face of a determined and well-financed effort being mounted by Clark.

With New Hampshire scheduled to hold the first-in-the-nation primary Jan. 27, last night's debate represented perhaps the candidates' best opportunity to command attention at a time when many voters might be just tuning into the campaign.

With independents and Republicans allowed to vote in the Democratic primary under the state's election laws, the candidates had strong incentives to avoid explicit partisanship and negative attacks.

At one point, Koppel, alluding to Dean's dominance in fund raising and the polls, observed, "He's got to be doing something right." He then asked Kerry, "Is there something to be learned from his campaign?"

Kerry, who has been criticized for using a crude word in a recent interview, replied, "If I were an impolite person, I'd tell you where you could take your polls."

Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.