Campaign for America's Future Holds Take Back America Conference
Matthew Cavanaugh  /  Getty Images
Howard Dean addresses the Take Back America Conference in Washington on Thursday.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 6/4/2004 10:34:32 AM ET 2004-06-04T14:34:32

Whatever happened to Howard Dean?

Only five months ago Dean's face was simultaneously on the cover of Newsweek and Time. His campaign juggernaut, pundits said, was headed for the Democratic nomination.

In mid-January, Dean was mulling over his vice presidential choice. He “is already planning what he will do in his second term,” reported Roger Simon in U.S. News & World Report on Jan. 12.

Most of the momentum for Dean’s meteoric campaign came from rank-and-file Democrats’ anger at party leaders, such as Sen. John Kerry, for voting to give President Bush authority to use force against Iraq when Congress voted in October 2002.

“Sen. Kerry is talking about experience in foreign affairs. His experience led him to give the president of the United States a blank check to invade Iraq,” Dean said last November in debate with Kerry and other Democratic contenders. “That was an abdication and a failure on the part of Congress. And Sen. Kerry was part of that failure.”

Today Dean is supporting Kerry and urging former Dean foot soldiers to do the same.

In an interview Thursday with, Dean said that as he travels the country and talks with his supporters, he hears from “the vast majority” that they will vote for Kerry in November.

“Some are still trying to make up their minds and my position is you ought to vote for John Kerry if you want change, because you’re certainly not to going to get it with George Bush.”

Why switch to Kerry?
Why would a Dean supporter who believed that Kerry’s October 2002 vote was “an abdication and a failure” now back Kerry?

“I don’t think it serves my purpose to go into it and it certainly doesn’t serve Kerry’s,” Dean said, adding, “Most people believe John Kerry would provide far better leadership on Iraq than George Bush has.”

On Thursday at a gathering of 2,000 liberal activists at the Campaign for America’s Future conference in Washington, Dean uncorked his vintage rhetoric.

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“I understand there are some policy differences between some of you and Sen. Kerry, but let me ask you this: If you were worrying about the defense of the United States of America, who would you rather have in the White House, a guy who like so many people who send our children to war, never served a day in his life overseas, or somebody who has been to war with three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star?”

Dean wound up his speech with a shouting finale, just as he used to do not so long ago on the campaign trial: “We are going to take this country back this time and never again are going to permit the extreme right wing of the Republican Party to tell us what to do!”

Helping Kerry on the stump
Dean told after the speech that he is “campaigning for Kerry to a certain extent, as asked. It’s usually ad hoc: They usually call us and say, ‘can you do this?’ When they do, I try to help in every way.”

He is wary when it comes to questions about what he’d like Kerry to say about Iraq or what Kerry needs to do to win on Nov 2.

“I’m not going to give MSNBC advice that I’ve given in private to Sen. Kerry,” Dean said. “But I think the campaign is going better than the national press is reporting. Having been on the road with him, I think there’s a good reception. I think he’s doing a good job, getting his message across.”

“In general, his job for the next five months is to let people get to know him, because they’ve already made the decision they want to look somewhere else, other than President Bush, now they have to make the decision that they want John Kerry,” Dean said. “This is a candidate who has only been on the national stage for a year and a half. Just now are people beginning to get to know him and form impressions. I think he will beat George Bush, but we have five months of work to do.”

Working for local candidates
Dean said he’s now spending much of his time working on his grass-roots organization and political action committee, Democracy for America, trying to help candidates for the House, the Senate, state legislatures and local offices.

Democracy for America has announced support for two dozen candidates running for office, with more to come. The majority are seeking non-federal offices, school boards, county freeholder posts, and the like.

The Democracy for America e-mail list now stands at more than 500,000.

One indicator of Dean’s continued fund-raising clout: On May 18, when he sent out an e-mail to his list to seek money for the Kerry campaign, within 24 hours his message had raised more than $500,000.

But for Kerry to win the electoral vote, he’ll need more than money. He almost certainly has to break through in some of the border and Southern states and in culturally conservative counties in the Midwestern battleground states.

'Guns, God and gays'
One of the most memorable Dean statements from the primaries was, “We have got to stop having the campaigns run in this country based on abortion, guns, God, and gays.”

Voters, he argued, really care more about education, health insurance and economic issues than about social ones.

But, asked Dean Thursday, what if most voters in Colorado or West Virginia, for example, decide they care most about abortion, guns, gays, and a bigger role for religion in American life and agree with Bush, not Kerry, on those issues?

Does the Democratic emphasis on economic issues underestimate the significance of “abortion, guns, God, and gays” and thus lose voters who are focused on social issues?

“You can’t ever tell somebody their focus is misguided, that would be presumptuous,” Dean replied. “But what you can do is make the case and the case will be made by the actions of the right. The right wing doesn’t care about people who struggle economically. That is why they fill them full of divisiveness and hate. Sooner or later, most people are going to be interested in whether their kids have health insurance, whether they have an opportunity to go on to college, and so forth. And the Republicans can’t provide that — especially with their financial mismanagement.”

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