msnbc.com
updated 1/1/2004 8:47:10 PM ET 2004-01-02T01:47:10

While you were unwrapping your Christmas presents or skiing in Alta, the Democratic presidential contest became a referendum on Howard Dean’s rhetoric. In a series of provocative comments over the past two weeks, Dean seems to have raised the threshold for what a candidate “gaffe” is.

Any other presidential contender might have been gravely damaged by the kinds of things Dean has been saying in recent weeks, but late December polling shows Dean maintaining a comfortable lead over his rivals in New Hampshire, which holds its primary on Jan. 27.

Here’s the rundown on Dean’s controversial comments. In the past two weeks:

  • Dean derided the Democratic Leadership Council as “the Republican wing of the Democratic Party.” The DLC, a centrist group of hundreds of Democratic members of Congress, state legislators and other officials headed by Bill Clinton when he was Arkansas governor, has criticized Dean since last summer, arguing that his angry rhetoric makes him easy for the Republicans to defeat if he’s the nominee.
  • Dean seemed to threaten the non-Dean contingent of his party by warning that if he isn’t the nominee, many of his supporters will boycott the election and stay home, rather than vote for any Democratic nominee other than Dean.
  • He assailed Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, an ally of Bill and Hillary Clinton, for not urging Dean’s rivals to moderate their attacks on him. McAuliffe is neutral in the Democratic race. "If we had strong leadership in the Democratic Party, it would be calling the other candidates and saying somebody has to win here,” Dean said, suggesting if that if the late Ron Brown were still party chairman, “this (anti-Dean sniping) wouldn't be happening."
  • He declared that he and other potential presidents ought to not prejudge the guilt or innocence of Osama bin Laden, since he may be caught and put on trial. “We should do our best not to, in positions of executive power, not to prejudge jury trials,” Dean remarked.
  • Dean claimed, according to a Wisconsin newspaper, that "I understand farm issues. Nobody else (of the other Democratic presidential contenders) comes from a farm state."

 
In a reverse-spin kind of way, Dean’s freewheeling rhetoric may be protecting him from political damage: The more “controversial” things he says, the more accustomed audiences become to him saying such things and the less “controversial” his statements become.

You can see this effect in the press releases and other reactions coming from rival campaigns who must reach for stronger and stronger adjectives, rather than merely “controversial,” to describe Dean’s comments.

“Gephardt Responds to Dean’s Latest Outlandish Assertion,” blared a press release from Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt. Rebutting Dean’s notion that no other contender comes from a farm state, Gephardt pointed out that his state has 16 times as many farmers as Vermont does. “In the race against George Bush, our party cannot afford a nominee who makes reckless, inaccurate statements,” he added.

And mocking Dean’s call for McAuliffe to impose some restraint on the Democratic infighting, Sen. Joe Lieberman said, "The primary campaign is a warmup compared to what George Bush and Karl Rove have waiting for him. ... He's going to melt in a minute once the Republicans start going after him."

Dean stays in the lead
In its first edition of 2004, Demo Derby keeps Dean in the lead since there is scant sign yet that Dean’s comments are causing his followers to abandon him.

The most pertinent question now is whether Dean has hit a ceiling of roughly 40 percent in New Hampshire and other primary states, or whether he will go above that level.

In the former case, he can clinch the nomination by methodically grinding out 40-percent plurality wins in state after state, week after week, while his eight opponents divide up the remaining 60 percent. In the latter case, he can win the nomination more quickly if he scores overwhelming wins in Iowa and New Hampshire and if most of his rivals exhaust their cash and drop out of the race by mid-February.

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Since money is the key to survival, Demo Derby pushes Wesley Clark a few steps ahead on the strength of his collecting the most in federal taxpayer matching funds this week.

Clark is getting $3.7 million, followed by $3.6 million for Lieberman, $3.4 million for North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and $3.1 million for Gephardt.

Chilly toward Gephardt
Assuming Gephardt stays in the game by winning the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses, he’ll need an influx of new money to compete with Dean in primaries on Feb. 3 and later in February. Some in the traditional Democratic donor community are chilly toward Gephardt, the former House Minority Leader, blaming him for failing to lead the Democrats back to a House majority from 1996 until 2002.

Dean — whose extraordinary fund-raising operation raked in a record-breaking $15 million in the fourth quarter — has opted out of the public financing system, which imposes spending limits along with its taxpayer subsidy.

With just 18 days to go until Democrats hold their precinct caucuses in Iowa, it feels as if one of Dean’s rivals needs to pull off some attention-getting exploit in order to change the chemistry of the race.

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