Moves Expected to Bolster Dean Front-Runner Status

Times Staff Writer

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, already considered the front-runner in the Democratic presidential race, will dramatically widen his advantage with a series of moves expected over the next few days.

Today, Dean is likely to announce that he will become the first Democratic candidate ever to opt out of the public financing system, a decision that could expand the financial advantage he already enjoys over his rivals.

On Wednesday, he's expected to receive an unprecedented joint endorsement from two of the nation's largest and most politically sophisticated unions: the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Together, these developments would create an imposing organizational and financial challenge for Dean's rivals -- whose best hope of overcoming his lead at this point may be Dean's tendency to wound himself with controversial remarks, like his recent comments about the Confederate flag.

"He was the front-runner before; he now becomes the big gorilla," Tony Coelho, a campaign chairman for Al Gore in the 2000 presidential race, said Friday. "I don't see anybody in the whole scheme of things who can beat him now. The question will be whether Dean can stop Dean."

Such comments underscore the remarkable evolution of Dean's campaign.

He began his candidacy as a classic political insurgent who had little money or name awareness but hoped to excite grass-roots enthusiasm through relentless campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire -- site of the first contests in the nomination process -- with a message that criticized the party establishment.

Since then, Dean has become a hybrid candidate for whom there is no exact precedent. While he continues to stir excitement with the fervent anti-establishment message, he's also accumulating the financial and organizational resources that usually flow only to a candidate favored by the party establishment.

For Dean, the gains are reinforcing each other. One reason he is getting labor support is that he has demonstrated enough fund-raising clout to consider leaving the public financing system -- which, if he wins the nomination, would put him in better position to compete with President Bush.

"For a lot of people, the possibility of [opting out of the system] puts an extra check mark next to our name," said Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager.

What makes this movement toward Dean more remarkable is that it is occurring while many Democrats still fear that his liberal views on the Iraq war and gay rights, and his sometimes volcanic temperament, would make him an easy general election opponent for Bush.

A senior strategist for one of Dean's rivals said that by aligning behind Dean, the SEIU and AFSCME are repeating the mistake that an array of labor leaders made in 1984, when they helped power former Vice President Walter Mondale to the Democratic nomination -- only to see him crushed by President Reagan in the general election.

"I know from having traveled in the South and Southwest you are going to end up with a candidate [in Dean] who is virtually unelectable in the general election," the strategist insisted.

But while many centrist Democrats still share those fears, others have reassessed Dean. In particular, he's turned heads by his ability to raise money in small donations, largely through the Internet, and his success at exciting his party's core supporters -- which many strategists, both Democrats and Republicans, are coming to view as more central to winning in 2004 than converting swing voters.

For Dean, the expected endorsement next week from the 1.4-million-member AFSCME may be invaluable in quashing questions about his electability.

In some respects, his support from the 1.6-million-member SEIU is not that surprising, since the union's main focus is expanding access to health care -- Dean's top domestic priority -- and its president, Andrew Stern, is considered one of the nation's most liberal labor leaders.

But AFSCME President Gerald W. McEntee is regarded as one of labor's most politically pragmatic and savvy leaders. His focus on finding the strongest general election candidate earlier led him to flirt with endorsements of Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts or retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark.

For McEntee to join Stern behind Dean would send a powerful signal to other Democrats that key parts of the party establishment have grown more comfortable with Dean's prospects against Bush.

Although the AFSCME will not make its decision official until a meeting of its international board on Wednesday, sources say McEntee has already notified other Democratic contenders that the union will join the SEIU in endorsing Dean.

"Dean has run the best campaign ... but at the same time, he's dogged by a persistent critique that does not burden the other first-tier candidates -- which is that he can't win," said one AFSCME official who asked not to be identified. "So the imprimatur of the two most politically active, most politically sophisticated unions

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri still has the most support from organized labor. He's received endorsements from 20 unions with a total of roughly 5 million members.

But his aides acknowledge that the joint support from Stern and McEntee could inspire other unions to back Dean. These could include unions representing teachers, communications workers and electricians, Democratic and labor sources say.

"SEIU broke the dam, but as soon as AFSCME joins, because of [McEntee's] credibility, that all of a sudden puts the crown on Dean and someone is going to have to knock it off," said Coelho, who is neutral in the race. "You are going to see elected officials join, you are going to see other unions join; it is going to start a groundswell."

Regardless of whether other unions follow, the dual endorsements should boost Dean in the key early states. In Iowa, where polls have shown Dean locked in a close race with Gephardt, the AFSCME is one of the largest unions, with 28,000 members. In New Hampshire, where labor is weaker, the SEIU is perhaps the best-organized union.

The unions can do less for Dean in the next round of contests on Feb. 3, which occur mostly in nonunion Southern and Southwestern states, such as South Carolina, Oklahoma and Arizona.

But even if Dean stumbles in those contests, the union endorsements significantly improve his odds of reestablishing an advantage in mid-February showdowns in Michigan and Wisconsin, two states where labor is critical.

In Michigan, which will vote in a caucus that magnifies the importance of organization, the SEIU counts 45,000 members and the AFSCME 60,000. They number a combined 70,000 members in Wisconsin.

Dean's expected decision to abandon the public financing system could also provide him an edge in the early contests. Under the system, candidates agree to spending limits in return for federal funds that match the first $250 of every contribution they receive.

Dean and his advisors have framed his expected withdrawal as a way to compete with Bush, who has already opted out of the system and aims to spend at least $175 million through the Republican convention in September.

Democrats who remain in the public financing system will be allowed to spend only $49 million through their convention in July. In all likelihood, the eventual winner will have to spend almost all that money to secure the nomination by March, leaving the candidate unable to raise or spend virtually anything from then until the convention. That's the prospect Dean has raised to justify leaving the system.

But opting out would also allow Dean to break the caps that limit how much candidates can spend during the primaries in individual states, such as Iowa and New Hampshire. That would mean Dean could spend more in those states than his rivals who stay within the system.

Given that prospect, several campaign finance reform advocates this week urged Dean to voluntarily abide by the spending limits for the primaries, even if he opts out of the public finance system.

Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) said Friday that by voluntarily accepting the limits, Dean could maintain a level playing field with the Democrats participating in the public system during the primaries but would preserve his ability to compete financially with Bush through the spring and summer if he wins the nomination.

"This would at least demonstrate that the decision to opt out is prompted by the president's unprecedented fund-raising and not a desire to overwhelm" other Democratic candidates.

On Friday, Kerry said that if he opted out of the system, he would not spend more than the total allowed during the primaries "until a nominee is effectively chosen."

Dean's camp said it is only beginning to consider those requests.

But with so many dominos falling his way, most observers consider it unlikely that Dean would accept any self-imposed limits that would inhibit his ability to strike a quick knockout blow.

A top advisor to one of his rivals said that given the financial and organizational resources flowing to Dean, "The truth is you are looking at a situation where if Dean wins Iowa and New Hampshire, everyone else is toast."

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