Dean Sets Tricky Standard for Himself

Times Staff Writer

Howard Dean has made blunt talk the hallmark of his insurgent White House bid, vaulting to the top tier of Democratic contenders by opposing the war in Iraq and continuing his criticism even after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

People are desperate for a candidate who says what he thinks regardless of polls, the former Vermont governor told a crowd of environmental activists this week in West Los Angeles. “I’m not afraid to tell people I disagree with them,” he said. As if to prove it, he then touted his friendly relations back home with the National Rifle Assn.

That plain-spoken style has earned Dean a strong following, particularly among liberals who think Democrats have been too timid in the face of Bush’s high approval marks in public opinion polls. “He’s got guts,” said Joel Safranek, 58, a fund-raising consultant who showed up Monday night for a glittering Dean reception high over Hollywood Boulevard. “He’s shaking things up, moving the dialogue to the left, saying the things that need to be said about how terrible this administration is.”


But Dean has not always been as straightforward as his straight-talking image suggests.

He has mischaracterized some of his opponents’ positions and fuzzed up his own. He has offered misleading statements, even as he challenges the integrity of others running. (“They need a backbone transplant,” he told a union audience Wednesday in New York City.) Before the race even heats up, Dean has been forced to apologize to at least one rival for misspeaking, and he angered several others who privately seethe over his potshots. All of that could make Dean a prime target when the presidential candidates stage their first televised debate of the campaign Saturday night in South Carolina.

“A lot of careful thought goes into political strategy,” said David Doak, a Democratic consultant who is neutral in the primary. “But things like anger, disdain, mistrust and grudges go a long way in explaining what sometimes ends up happening. [Dean] may be kicking the hell out of everyone else in the field, but they may decide to kick back at some point.”

The manager of Dean’s campaign, Joe Trippi, said any suggestion that Dean has been purposely deceptive “is a totally unfounded, ridiculous characterization.” While acknowledging that Dean has occasionally misspoken -- as every candidate does -- Trippi said they were honest mistakes growing out of Dean’s spontaneous speaking style.

“There are two kinds of candidates in the campaign,” Trippi said. “There are those who give a lot of their speeches from prepared texts where their staffs have gone over every single word and made sure ... everything is so carefully cautious and blurred up. And then there’s Howard Dean ... Everything he says is stuff that hasn’t been cooked up in a backroom for him to go and put out there like a robot.”

Dean, a 54-year-old physician by training, had a more moderate record during his 11 years as Vermont governor than his current favor among liberals would suggest. He was a friend of the environment and signed landmark “civil union” legislation that granted gay and lesbian couples the rights and benefits of marriage inside the state. But he also supported gun-owner rights, cut taxes, capped spending and consistently balanced the state budget, leaving enough for a surplus that has spared Vermont the fiscal trauma most other states are facing.

He was the first to declare his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, launching his campaign in May 2002. Dean labored in relative obscurity until his breakthrough last fall, when he began attacking Bush’s policy on Iraq as well as the Democrats who supported the president in Congress. Dean has persisted in his criticism, even as the conflict has wound down.

Speaking in Los Angeles, Dean said Hussein demonstrated he could not “punch his way out of a paper bag” and could have been safely contained for years without creating the dangerous power vacuum that now exists in Iraq. The fact that the polls say about 70% of Americans support President Bush’s policy merely suggests to Dean they’re wrong and he’s right. “The worst of the war is still to come,” Dean predicted.

However, despite his fierce criticism of his Democratic rivals, Dean’s antiwar position was never as clear-cut -- or as different -- as he indicated. He assailed four of his opponents -- Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina, John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut as well as Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri -- for voting in September to authorize the use of force to disarm Hussein. Dean called that “a blank check” for unilateral action and accused Kerry, Edwards and Gephardt of “dancing around” the issue when they later began voicing doubts about Bush’s handling of diplomacy leading up to the war. But Dean, too, had said he would support unilateral action against Iraq under certain conditions -- a distinction lost as he fired up antiwar audiences.

Dean has omitted pertinent facts in others instances, as well. Addressing an abortion-rights group in Washington last winter, he hushed the crowd when he told the story of a pregnant 12-year-old he treated as a physician. He also left the false impression the girl was impregnated by her father.

About a month later, Dean was forced to back off and subsequently apologized to Edwards after falsely accusing the North Carolina senator of concealing his congressional vote on Iraq while speaking to the California Democratic Party convention. (Last week, Dean sought out Gephardt for a private meeting and -- depending on who relates details -- may have apologized yet again, this time for attacking the health-care proposal the congressman had unveiled a few days earlier.)

Dean minimizes such incidents. He said he made a careless mistake in criticizing Edwards because he had not heard his speech, which preceded his own. He said the detail he left out of his remarks to abortion-rights supporters -- that someone other than the girl’s father was convicted in the case -- was not particularly relevant to his support for legalized abortion.

Political observers point out that Dean has set an exceedingly high standard for himself by attacking the credibility of others. “When you set yourself up to be the only one in the race telling the complete truth, you better always tell the truth and nothing but the truth,” said strategist Garry South, who is not affiliated with any of the Democrats running.

This week in California, Dean pursued a new line of attack, accusing Kerry, Edwards and Lieberman of supporting Bush’s call for a new round of tax cuts, even though each has repeatedly stated his opposition. Dean referred to the Senate vote on one of several amendments considered during the debate over Bush’s tax cut plan. Ultimately, all three men voted against the cut on final passage of the measure.

Robert Gibbs, a spokesman for Kerry, accused Dean of showing “a pathological recklessness with the facts.” Dean, in turn, said Kerry and the others cannot deny voting for the earlier amendment, which called for up to $350 billion in tax cuts. “That is classic having it both ways,” said Dean, who promised more confrontation when the candidates meet Saturday night.