Image: Howard Dean Campaigns in New Hampshire
Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean speaks at a town hall-style meeting Sunday in Manchester, N.H.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com

In their debates over the past few months, Democratic contenders have sometimes implied that front-runner Howard Dean is too irascible and arrogant to be a good presidential candidate, but they have not yet been able to goad him into giving a vivid demonstration of that before a national audience. From now until the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19, Dean can do what any football team leading in the third quarter of a game should do: avoid unforced errors and run out the clock.

The most recent polling data indicate that Dean has a shot at winning the Iowa caucuses and looks almost certain to win the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 27.

If Dean does win both contests, even officials with rival campaigns say he would gather so much momentum that he’d be difficult to stop from getting the party’s nomination.

Even if Dean loses Iowa, a convincing victory in New Hampshire on Jan. 27 would position him well for the following week’s contests in Arizona, New Mexico, Michigan and other states.

Dean played it safe in last week’s MSNBC debate. He even had a considerate word for his left-wing critic, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, reminding the audience that of the Democratic contenders serving in Congress, “only Dennis Kucinich up here had the courage to vote against that (Iraq war) resolution.”

Dean seems to have no reason not to be similarly risk-averse and magnanimous in the remaining debates before Jan. 19.

Target: Dean or Bush?
The dilemma facing Dean’s rivals is clear from their TV ads, as well as from their debate performances: If they focus most of their fire on Dean and less on Bush, party loyalists might conclude that Dean is the genuine anti-Bush candidate.

But if Dean’s rivals use their TV ad dollars during the next several weeks to attack Bush, they divert themselves from the task of knocking Dean off his stride.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry illustrated this dilemma last week by attacking Dean in the MSNBC debate, but simultaneously using ad dollars to criticize a pro-Bush TV advertisement that the Republican National Committee was airing.

“George Bush’s ad says he’s being attacked for attacking the terrorists,” the Kerry TV spot said. “No, Mr. President, America’s united against terror. The problem is you declared ‘mission accomplished’ but you had no plan to win the peace, and handed out billions in contracts to contributors like Halliburton.”

Kerry will never get to face Bush unless he first disposes of Dean, so every dollar he spends on assailing Bush is a dollar that he cannot use against Dean.

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Even as Dean uses his ground game to play out the remaining weeks before the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, Clinton administration alumni are voicing a fear that none of Dean’s rivals so far dares to say bluntly: Dean would be a weak candidate against George Bush.

Over the weekend, former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta said, “There clearly are concerns about Dean’s ability to appeal to the entire country, particularly on national security issues. ... How can you compete with President Bush on the national security front? There is some concern about whether Dean can rise to the occasion on this issue.”

“He’s quick of lip, and quick of temper and stubborn,” former Clinton White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes told Time magazine recently.

Muffled criticism
A few of Dean’s rivals have made similar criticisms of Dean but they have done so in muffled voices, in code phrases, in fits and starts.

In recent weeks on the campaign trail, Kerry has said “the presidency of the United States is not the place for on-the-job training in foreign affairs.”

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards has been telling Democrats — without specifically mentioning Dean or his polemical speaking style — “If all we are in 2004 is a party of anger, we won’t win.”

Similarly, Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt said last week, “I don’t think its enough to just be angry. ... I’m not interested in who can shout the loudest.”

In September, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman told reporters after a debate in Albuquerque, N.M., that voters had to decide whether Dean had “the experience, the strength of leadership and the ability to calmly make decisions under pressure and take our country forward.”

At that same event, Kucinich said Dean “can talk about balancing the budget in Vermont. But Vermont doesn’t have a military. And if you are not going to cut the military and you are talking about balancing the budget, then what are you going to do about social spending?”

To translate for those who might find Kerry, Edwards, Gephardt, Lieberman, and Kucinich a bit too oblique, they are alleging that Dean is:

So angry that he will make centrist voters recoil in distaste.

Lacking in military and foreign policy experience.

Unwilling to cut the military budget, even at a time when federal budget deficits are as large as they were in the 1980s.

Rebutting the allegation from Kerry and others that he lacks foreign policy experience, Dean said on MSNBC’s “Hardball” Monday night that “given the amount of trouble we are in now in Iraq,... their kind of foreign policy experience is not the kind we want in the White House, and mine is.”

Kerry, Lieberman, Edwards and Gephardt voted for last year’s congressional resolution authorizing Bush to go to war against Iraq. Dean opposed the resolution.

Are the criticisms that Dean’s rivals are airing too indirectly phrased to get across to Democratic primary voters or are they simply falling on unreceptive ears?

Learning from Bradley
The lesson that Bill Bradley’s 2000 campaign teaches is that a rival can wait until it is too late to use real ammunition.

In the summer of 1999, Bradley was fully competitive with Al Gore in fund-raising and in polls of Democratic primary voters.

But by the time the autumn leaves had fallen in New Hampshire, Bradley had faltered, partly because he hesitated to criticize Gore in pointed terms that let listeners know he really meant it.

“What’s happened is campaigns have turned into wars and when campaigns turn into wars, people turn off,” Bradley ruefully said three days before he lost the New Hampshire primary to Gore. “We need a new kind of politics where somebody says what they’re for, not what they’re against.”

Bradley conveyed the feeling that he thought it would be ignoble and unseemly for him to get into a bare-knuckled brawl with Gore. But a campaign is a kind of war and candidates who wish that it were not usually end up losing.

How well Dean’s rivals have learned Bradley’s lessons will become clear over the next few weeks.

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