msnbc.com
updated 12/19/2003 10:16:18 AM ET 2003-12-19T15:16:18

The fusillade directed at front-runner Howard Dean got fiercer this week, after Dean said he’d have supported an attack on Iraq “had the United Nations given us permission and asked us to be part of a multilateral force.”

Dean rival Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts scoffed at the idea of a president needing to ask “permission” from the U.N., while Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman slammed Dean for asserting that “the capture of Saddam has not made America safer.”

Lieberman said Dean “has climbed into his own spider hole of denial.”

Meanwhile, the Inside-the-Beltway voice of Establishment thinking, the Washington Post editorial page, added its condemnation of Dean, who, it said “has compiled a disturbing record of misstatements and contradictions on foreign policy.”

Calendar smiles on Dean
Why then does Demo Derby push Dean back only the length of a donkey’s head? “The truth is,” as Dean likes to say, that despite the raging debate over his foreign policy pronouncements, he has the calendar working very much in his favor.

With candidates and potential voters about to enter a Christmas-Hanukkah-New Year’s Eve hiatus, Dean’s rivals will only have a bit more than two weeks, starting on Jan. 2, to make their case in advertisements and in speeches before the Iowa caucuses.

And Dean continues to amass “super-delegates,” elected officials and party operatives who have an automatic vote at the Democratic convention next summer. On Friday, Dean got the backing of New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey; he has also been rounding up endorsements from House members in recent weeks.

“I’m running against the clock here,” Kerry acknowledged in an interview with NBC Campaign Embed Becky Diamond as he toured New Hampshire on Wednesday. “I think we’re growing.”

Although still in single digits in New Hampshire polls, Lieberman moves up in this edition of Demo Derby on the strength of his vigorous attack on Dean. Say what you will about the substance of the attacks, Lieberman is getting more media coverage than he did three weeks ago.

“Our fund-raising has spiked, as a result of both the Gore endorsement (of Dean) and the capture of Saddam Hussein,” said Brian Hardwick, Joe Lieberman's deputy campaign director. “We’re going to surprise people in New Hampshire.”

Dean 46, Kerry 17, Lieberman 7
The most recent Granite State poll shows Lieberman drawing 7 percent, to Dean’s 46 percent and Kerry’s 17 percent.

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Controversy erupted over anti-Dean TV ads run by an independent Democratic group featuring horror-movie music and an image of Osama bin Laden. The ads said Dean “has no military or foreign policy experience” and “just cannot compete with George Bush on foreign policy.”

Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi condemned the ads. From the Lieberman camp, Hardwick said, “I agree with Joe Trippi that these ads are over the top, especially with regard to their style and the way they’re produced. I agree as well that these are types of ads Republicans would run and I do think that is precisely what worries some Democrats about Howard Dean.”

Gephardt keeps pace in second place as his campaign resumed its anti-Dean offensive with a new attack on tax breaks the Dean administration in Vermont gave an Enron insurance subsidiary.

“Dean continues to stubbornly refuse to disclose any details of meetings or negotiations with Enron prior to them locating a shell corporation in Vermont in exchange for huge tax breaks,” charged Gephardt campaign manager Steve Murphy. He argued that if Dean were the nominee, the Enron story “would surely come back to haunt him.”

A nudge from Clinton for Clark
Meanwhile, Wesley Clark gets a forward nudge, thanks to a letter from former President Clinton to prosecutors at The Hague.

Clark “carried out the policy of the NATO alliance, which was to stop massive ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, with great skill, integrity and iron determination,” Clinton says. Not an endorsement, but sterling words for a campaign ad.

Overshadowed by the Dean foreign policy controversy, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards delivered his own foreign policy speech this week, earning praise from the Washington Post editorial page for “a detailed and ambitious plan to prevent the spread of dangerous nuclear materials.”

But as yet there is no sign of Edwards breaking out of single-digit territory in Iowa or New Hampshire polls.

Two straws in the wind suggest that Dean is still the man to beat.

One straw came in the person of 2000 Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader who dropped hints this week about another possible run for the presidency.

“I don't know whether the Democrats really know how to beat Bush," Nader observed.

'Conservative' Dean
Dean’s record as Vermont governor was "pretty conservative," Nader complained.

The more likely it appears that Nader will run, the more Democrats may feel they need an unconventional, cutting-edge nominee to immunize themselves against the Nader effect.

Dean has argued for months that he’s just the man to bring Nader voters of 2000 into the Democratic column. We have not heard Naderites express any enthusiasm for Lieberman or Gephardt, for example. But the truth is that many Greens and Naderites despise Dean as well.

The other straw in the wind is a new Wisconsin poll in which Dean garnered support from 33 percent of likely primary voters, with Lieberman pulling 12 percent and Clark and Gephardt tied at 9 percent. Twenty-two percent said they were undecided.

Assuming Gephardt wins Iowa on Jan. 19, Dean wins the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 27, and the results of the Feb. 3 contests are inconclusive, the Wisconsin Feb. 17 primary could end up as the climactic event of the primary season.

Dean has more money than any of his rivals so he can keep his ads on the Wisconsin airwaves.

Demo Derby takes this as pretty close to gospel: Ever since 1980, the Democratic contender who raised the most money in the year prior to the primaries ends up winning the nomination. This year, that’s Dean.

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