After beginning the year as a longshot, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has surged past his rivals as the race for the Democratic presidential nomination hits the Labor Day milepost.
Dean has raised more money than any of his opponents in recent months, rocketed to the top not only of polls in Iowa and New Hampshire but some national surveys of Democrats, and drawn much larger crowds than usually seen at this point in the nomination process.
“Dean has dramatically altered the race,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, a centrist Democratic group. “He has become the front-runner.”
Major tests await Dean, including a series of candidate debates that begin this week. And more twists and turns may be inevitable, since relatively few Democrats outside of the first states on the primary calendar are paying close attention to the contest. “No campaign has ever put a lock on things in the summer,” said Jim Jordan, campaign manager for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). “This thing will be settled somewhere in the snow.”
But with Dean demonstrating so much strength, the pressure is rapidly intensifying on the contest’s eight other candidates to slow his momentum or increase their pace -- or both.
Although the first voters won’t cast ballots until January, a wide range of Democratic strategists say that if the other candidates cannot change the race’s trajectory in the next three months, Dean may establish advantages too large to overcome.
“Whatever third-quarter strategy they have been waiting to unveil, it’s time to unveil it now,” said Donna Brazile, who managed Democratic nominee Al Gore’s 2000 campaign. “If they have something to offer the American people, I don’t know what they are waiting for.”
Dean appears on track to raise significantly more money than his Democratic rivals for the reporting period that ends Sept. 30. That would send shock waves through a Democratic establishment still concerned that Dean’s unrelenting opposition to the war in Iraq might make him an easy general election opponent for President Bush.
“The guy is in fourth gear and everyone else is in first,” said a senior party strategist who has helped direct several Democratic presidential campaigns. “In that case, the lights in the car ahead become distant pretty quickly. You can’t allow someone to break from a pack when you are in a pack.”
That imperative is likely to mean more attacks on Dean in the weeks ahead, starting Thursday in New Mexico at the first of several debates sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee. But finding ways to attract a second look at their own campaigns may be even more important for the other main contenders -- Kerry, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, all of whom have found themselves overshadowed by Dean.
“There is plenty of time,” said longtime Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who is neutral in the race. “The question is: Is there a message or a persona by which one of the other candidates can emerge? Part of the reason Dean has emerged is that nobody else has presented a very detailed or attractive picture.”
With the war in Iraq and the California gubernatorial recall dominating the news and the 2004 election more than 14 months away, presidential politics seem distant to most Americans. But the calendar is already pressing on the Democratic hopefuls.
The Iowa caucus will be held Jan. 19; the traditionally pivotal New Hampshire primary follows on Jan. 27. Several other states conduct primaries soon after, and the race could be decided by mid-February. The nominee is almost certain to be chosen no later than March 2, when a dozen states -- including California, Ohio and New York -- will vote.
With so many contests looming so soon, the race’s pace should accelerate rapidly after Labor Day. Following the debate in Albuquerque, the candidates will square off the following few weeks in New York City and Baltimore. On Sept. 8, they are to make joint appearances before two of the most powerful unions that have not yet endorsed a candidate: the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Dean’s ascent has raised the stakes in all of these events for his opponents. Indeed, his campaign in recent days demonstrated a display of strength that forced all the other Democratic contenders to reconsider their candidacies.
He drew large crowds -- including at least 8,000 in Seattle and New York -- during a four-day, coast-to-coast series of rallies. As the tour ended early last week, campaign manager Joe Trippi announced that Dean, who has used the Internet to raise money more effectively than any candidate before him, would collect at least $10.3 million in the period from July through September.
That would equal the most any Democrat has ever raised in a single quarter. And the other campaigns assume that if Trippi publicly set that goal, the Dean camp is confident it can raise at least $12 million, and maybe more.
Privately, the other leading Democratic contenders are hoping to raise from $4 million to $6 million each in this quarter. Meanwhile, they are concerned Dean will opt out of the public financing system, which would allow him to spend unlimited sums in the primaries.
Underscoring Dean’s financial advantage, Trippi also said the campaign -- which has already advertised in Iowa, New Hampshire and Texas -- would begin airing new television spots in six states that don’t vote until February, including Arizona, Wisconsin and South Carolina. Among the other major contenders, only Edwards has aired television ads so far, and he’s bought time just in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina. Kerry is expected to hit the airwaves in September.
In an exclamation point to Dean’s strong position, independent pollster John Zogby released a survey Wednesday showing the former governor had opened a large lead, 38% to 17%, over Kerry in New Hampshire, with no other candidate attracting more than 6%. Several polls last winter gave Kerry roughly a 12-percentage-point lead over Dean in the state.
Recent polls in states as diverse as Maryland and California have shown Dean narrowly ahead of his rivals. And a national survey released by Zogby last week also put Dean on top, with 17% of Democratic voters supporting him. But in a sign the race remains fluid, 32% were undecided.
Dean may be assembling a kind of hybrid campaign for which there is no clear precedent. On the one hand, with his charge that the party leadership has failed to effectively resist Bush, he has attracted the type of fervent grass-roots support that fueled the insurgent campaigns of George S. McGovern in 1972 and Gary Hart in 1984. But he also is beginning to accumulate the financial and organizational advantages usually amassed by favorites of the party establishment, such as Walter F. Mondale in 1984 or Al Gore in 2000.
Dean still has significant potential vulnerabilities. His style, which supporters call candid and refreshing, may seem abrasive or intemperate to others. Observers will be closely watching this month’s debates to see if he keeps his cool.
Fear that he may be too liberal to effectively contest Bush in a general election has limited his support among many top Democrats and labor leaders. They remain concerned not only about his unstinting opposition to the Iraq war but his record of support for gay civil unions and his call for repealing all of the Bush tax cuts.
Dean also has yet to demonstrate that he can reach beyond the well-educated voters who often respond to “reform” campaigns and attract the minority and blue-collar voters needed to win in the South and Midwest. At Dean’s rally in heavily Latino San Antonio last week, for instance, virtually the entire crowd was non-Latino white.
The question is whether other contenders can exploit those openings.
Many in Washington have believed Kerry combines the broadest range of assets in the race -- money, endorsements, a strong staff and positions generally acceptable across the party. But so far Kerry has performed like a baseball team playing .500 ball: He’s done everything reasonably well but nothing spectacularly well. He’s especially struggled to distill a defining rationale for his candidacy and lately has focused heavily on his background as a war hero in Vietnam.
“Kerry has to start all over,” said pollster Zogby. Indeed, he will try to do that when he formally announces his candidacy Tuesday.
Gephardt has a base of support in Iowa from his 1988 presidential campaign, and strong backing among blue-collar unions enthused by his skepticism of free trade and support for universal health care. But he has had difficulty raising money and faces a perception among some activists that he’s been around the track too long.
Lieberman has been running toward the center in a year when the party seems to be careening toward the left; his campaign is betting he can emerge as the alternative to Dean or Kerry with strong showings in the more conservative states that vote on Feb. 3 -- Oklahoma, South Carolina and Arizona. But unless Lieberman can improve his standing in Iowa and New Hampshire, he may be too weakened to break through elsewhere.
Some analysts see potential in Edwards’ candidacy -- he has connected well with voters this summer as he has crisscrossed Iowa and New Hampshire holding town meetings. But he remains stuck near the bottom of the polls in both states.
Former NATO Supreme Commander Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who says he will announce whether he will join the race by mid-September, could attract significant attention. But most operatives in the other camps believe he would be entering too late to seriously change the race.
With or without Clark, the Democratic focus for the fall is likely to remain centered on a question almost no one could have imagined six months ago: Can anyone stop Howard Dean?
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
The Democratic contenders
As the race for the Democratic presidential nomination reaches Labor Day, here’s where the hopefuls stand:
Howard Dean: This dark horse is threatening to run away from the field.
John F. Kerry: Hoped to establish an aura of inevitability; now is looking for a fresh start after a lackluster performance so far.
Joe Lieberman: Temperate and focused on the general election -- the opposite of what Democratic voters appear to want.
Richard A. Gephardt: Needs more help from organized labor to turbocharge a campaign that many find a bit shopworn.
John Edwards: The race’s enigma; he scores well with voters on the trail, but hasn’t registered in the polls.
Bob Graham: Florida heavyweight hasn’t left any footprints elsewhere in the nation.
Dennis J. Kucinich: The alternative for the sliver of the Democratic left that finds Dean too moderate.
Al Sharpton: Unequaled at stirring Democratic crowds, but hasn’t translated applause into support.
Rebecca Perry Los Angeles Times
Carol Moseley Braun: Recent endorsement by NOW unlikely to jump-start a campaign that has barely shown a pulse.
Wesley K. Clark: If he joins the race, will he be Dwight Eisenhower -- or just another wannabe who waited too long?
Analysis by Times staff writers Ronald Brownstein and Don Frederick
Key dates in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination
Sept. 4: Candidate debate in Albuquerque.
Sept. 9: Candidate debate in Baltimore.
Sept. 25: Candidate debate in New York.
Sept. 30: End of third-quarter fundraising period; candidates may reassess whether to stay in the race.
Oct. 9: Candidate debate in Phoenix.
Oct. 15: Reports on third-quarter fund-raising due to the Federal Election Commission. AFL-CIO executive board meets in Washington to decide whether to endorse a candidate.
Oct. 26: Candidate debate in Detroit.
Jan. 19, 2004: Iowa caucuses.
Jan. 27: New Hampshire primary.