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Democrats' brawling delights Republicans

Republican strategists can barely contain their glee over the infighting between Howard Dean and some of his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Democratic front-runner Howard Dean has become the focus of his rivals' criticism. Fred Prouser / Reuters file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Infighting between Howard Dean and some of his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination has gotten so nasty of late that Dean called on party chairman Terry McAuliffe to step in and tone things down. In the process, Dean managed to insult McAuliffe.

Republican strategists, meanwhile, are watching it all with barely contained glee.

“They are beginning to really gouge this guy,” Republican pollster Bill McInturff said about Dean, chuckling. “Look at Howard Dean and, as a Republican, think about the advertising we’re going to run.”

McInturff said Republicans could use John Kerry’s quotes about Dean wanting to tax the middle class, or the “wonderful attack” from Wesley Clark about Dean’s draft status or the “terrific comments” from Joe Lieberman about Dean’s stance on Saddam Hussein’s capture.

Much to criticize
Kerry has criticized Dean’s plan to roll back all of President Bush’s tax cuts, including those for the middle class. Clark has assailed Dean for heading to the ski slopes after getting a medical deferment to avoid military service in Vietnam. Lieberman has ridiculed Dean’s assertion that Saddam’s capture did not make Americans safer.

For now, Republicans don’t have to worry about beating up on Dean, who is ahead of his fellow Democrats in the polls nationally and in states with early nominating contests. His Democratic rivals are taking care of the job.

In complaining over the weekend about the attacks, Dean wound up criticizing McAuliffe when he said a strong party leader would intervene to keep him from getting beat up. Criticism of Dean has intensified as he has risen in the polls and as he continues to make statements he later has to clarify.

“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 Sunday. “If (former Democratic National Committee head) Ron Brown were chairman, this wouldn’t be happening.”

DNC dismisses Dean's comments
Debra DeShong, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, dismissed Dean’s complaints, saying what he is going through is not unusual.

“Democratic primaries over the last 20 years have been just as tough and just as vigorous,” she said.

George H.W. Bush, father of the current president, gave Democrats one of their best attack lines against Ronald Reagan in 1980 when he derided Reagan’s monetary policies as “voodoo economics,” said Anita Dunn, a veteran Democratic strategist.

Bill Clinton was under siege in 1992 on everything from charges of philandering to draft dodging.

Both Reagan and Clinton won their elections.

“Back in August, people were complaining the Democratic campaign was not engaged,” Dunn said. “This is what an engaged campaign looks like.”

As engaged as Lieberman, Kerry, Dick Gephardt and others have been against Dean, so were they on Monday in response to his complaints.

Lieberman said that if Dean thinks things are tough now, he should see Bush’s campaign team in action.

'Dean will melt in a minute'
“Dean will melt in a minute once Republicans start going after him,” Lieberman said.

Lieberman said he was surprised by Dean’s sensitivity, noting that the former Vermont governor fired the first volleys with a negative ad about his rivals, called members of Congress “cockroaches” and party leaders “prostitutes,” and referred to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council as “the Republican wing of the Democratic Party.”

Dean also warned Sunday that hundreds of thousands of his supporters would be unlikely to back anyone else in November if he is not the Democratic nominee.

Kerry called the comment “divisive and threatening” and said it fit with Dean’s pattern.

“He was the first candidate to attack in this campaign and the first to run negative ads and he has been attacking Democrats and their accomplishments during the Clinton years from day one of this race,” Kerry said.

Gephardt accused Dean of now wanting to change the rules of the game “as he makes a series of embarrassing gaffes that underscore the fact that he is not well-equipped to challenge George Bush.”

Dunn, who has seen plenty of tough primaries, says this year is a bit different in that there is more than the usual one or two credible candidates attacking the front-runner.

Five credible candidates
“Now you have five,” said Dunn, who advised former Sen. Bill Bradley in the 2000 primary contest against former Vice President Al Gore. “The intensity is higher and the volume is louder.”

Dean’s campaign had its usual feisty reaction to the reaction over his complaints.

“May we remind Mr. Lieberman that the reason more than half a million Americans are behind Howard Dean is because he alone stood up to George Bush?” said spokeswoman Tricia Enright. “It seems like the Washington candidates have figured out the only state they can run in: desperation.”