Image: Democratic Presidential Contenders Visit NAACP Convention
Howard Dean greets supporters as he visits the NAACP convention on Monday in Miami Beach, Fla.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 11/25/2003 5:35:30 PM ET 2003-11-25T22:35:30

Maverick Howard Dean, the outside-the-Beltway presidential contender who has expressed scorn for congressional efforts such as a patients’ bill of rights, is getting help from a coterie of Washington insiders, from congressional staffers to veteran lobbyists. On Tuesday Dean continued wooing congressional Democrats, meeting with the caucus of 36 fiscally conservative House Democrats known as the Blue Dogs. Several of the Blue Dogs came away impressed with Dean’s candor and his pro-gun rights stand.

Dean, the former of Vermont, has never served in Congress and plays the role of the acerbic outsider, slamming congressional Democrats, such as his rivals for nomination, Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, for not standing up to President Bush on Iraq.

“It is a bit of a club down there,” Dean said last month. “The Democratic Party, all the candidates from Washington, they all know each other, they all move in the same circles, and what I’m doing is breaking into the country club.”

When Dean first began running for the nomination last fall, in an interview with MSNBC.com he had not heard of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the congressional panel that does the official estimates of the fiscal effects of tax legislation.

He does not speak in the Capitol Hill lingo of “tabling the amendment” and “supplemental appropriations.”

INSIDERS FOR DEAN

But as improbable as it would have seemed three months ago, some Capitol Hill political realists have now accepted — even embraced — the notion that Dean will end up as the Democratic nominee.

“I want to beat Bush and I think Dean is the best guy to do that,” said a senior Senate Democratic staffer, who spoke to MSNBC.com on condition that he not be named. “I’m convinced he’s going to win the nomination. He has won ‘the inspiration primary’ and he won the fund-raising primary,” leading all Democratic contenders with $7.5 million raised in the second quarter.

This Senate staffer, who has written policy memos for the Dean campaign, said, “my feeling is that Dean is doing a masterful job of capturing the progressive supporters. But he can’t win if he is seen as the captive of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. He has to be seen as someone who is thoughtful, not as a captive. He has to take one or two moderate or conservative positions that would even out his image. Dean can take progressive positions as long as he can balance it.”

The Senate staffer said, “He’s perceived to be more liberal than he is. He needs to address that perception.”

One way to do that, as this Senate staffer urged in one memo to Dean, is to speak out strongly in support of a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

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“The balanced budget amendment is something that people don’t expect Democrats to support,” the staffer noted. Backing it “relieves people’s concern about Democrats and fiscal responsibility.”

After the House approved the constitutional amendment in 1995, the Senate failed by a single vote to pass it. Kerry and Gephardt voted against it.

Dean has been ambivalent about the amendment, telling NBC’s Tim Russert last month, “I go back and forth on that. It’s not very good public policy, but I’d love to see the Republicans hem and haw about what they would do about a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.”

Two other Washington insiders advising Dean’s campaign are lobbyist and former Senate aide Nikki Heidepriem, and former House staffer Maura Keefe.

“We focus on the super-delegate effort at the congressional level,” said Heidepriem.

The 800 “super-delegates” to the Democratic National Convention - nearly 40 percent of the delegates needed to clinch the nomination - are senators, members of the House, governors, and other top officials and ex-officials.

So far Dean only has four members of Congress backing him. But Heidepriem explained, “When you’re running against members of both bodies (the House and the Senate) one doesn’t expect a cascade of endorsements. But it’s useful to have the governor meet with these folks, get their reaction to his policies, and be able to explain personally what he’s trying to accomplish.”

She said Dean had voiced the frustrations of many grass-roots Democrats “about the vigor and boldness of the party,” including its congressional leaders. “He’s not coy about this, he’s concerned about the party needing to stand up for Democratic values.”

LESSON OF 2002 ELECTION

One lesson of the 2002 elections was that Democratic candidates who voted with Bush on tax cuts and the Iraq war lost anyway. “You had to do some self-examination” about that strategy, Heidepriem said — and that meant finding a candidate who sharply defines differences with Bush.

Heidepriem wants the congressional Democrats to understand that Dean “values members of Congress.” She said, “at first I’d occasionally get a call from a senior staffer or member of Congress saying, ‘it’s hard to help someone when he’s saying that we’re not doing our job.’ But the response to him has been so overwhelming that I hear a lot less now from members and staff about him being dismissive or harsh or overly critical.”

Heidepriem, Keefe, and about 25 other former congressional staffers and lobbyists based in Washington are advising the Dean campaign, conferring with each other on a regular basis by e-mail and in person. Many of them have long-standing ties to congressional Democrats which Dean campaign uses to set up meetings between Dean and members of the House and Senate.

Dean’s kaffeeklatsch with Blue Dogs Tuesday was an opportunity for him to convince House conservatives that he’s one of them.

“He presented himself very well. It’s obvious that he’s a fiscal conservative. We all like that as Blue Dog Democrats,” said Rep. Baron Hill, D-Indiana.

Bush carried Hill’s congressional district with 58 percent of the vote in 2000 — so Dean would face an uphill battle there.

Asked whether Dean was a social conservative, Hill replied, “He is on some things, and on some things he’s not. When you talk about the gun issue, he’s a social conservative. When you’re talking about gay rights and that sort of thing, he’s not. But he’s a good man, he’s making some inroads and he was impressive.”

Dean and the Blue Dogs are still somewhat at odds on fiscal policy. Dean calls for repeal of the entire package of tax cuts Congress enacted in 2001 and this year. But the Blue Dogs supported the acceleration of the 2001 tax cuts for low and middle income people and deferral — not repeal — of the tax cuts for upper income people.

SUPPORT FOR GAY RIGHTS

And on social issues the gulf between Dean and many of the Blue Dogs is even wider. Half of the Blue Dogs are from the South and many oppose abortion rights and gay rights.

Three of the Blue Dogs are sponsors of a constitutional amendment that would outlaw gay and lesbian marriages.

One of those sponsors, Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., said after meeting Dean at the Blue Dog meeting, “He did a very good job. He’s very straightforward. Regardless of whether people are committed to other candidates, his candor was impressive.”

Dean’s support for gay rights is “problematic” in the South, McIntyre said. “He knows that will be a problem in the South.” McIntyre is supporting his fellow Tar Heel Sen. John Edwards for the nomination.

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