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Dean in the danger zone

If you’re the front-runner at this point in a campaign, as Howard Dean is in the Democratic presidential contest, time seems to slow down to an agonizing crawl. Election Day can’t come soon enough for you. Howard Fineman reports.
Bill Bradley Endorses Howard Dean
Howard Dean has a reputation for taking himself too seriously.Shaun Heasley / Getty Images
/ Source: Special to

Joe Trippi was on my mobile phone. I had called him for some poll numbers and he sounded, understandably, hassled. Not frantic, but stressed. He should be.

As Howard Dean’s campaign manager, Trippi has masterfully guided his man to the brink of the Democratic nomination. But Trippi has been around a long time, and he knows that in any campaign, especially a presidential nomination race, things can change faster than you can shout “Hart Upsets Mondale.” If you’re the front-runner at this point in a campaign, time seems to slow down to an agonizing crawl. Election Day can’t come soon enough for you. Trippi knows that leads can crumble, an unexpected rival can rise up suddenly and that voters do what they want, not what pundits expect.

And under the pressure of approaching Armageddon, campaigns make mistakes. Dean’s own errors as a candidate and public speaker are well-known, but generally have been rendered harmless by the tactical and strategic skill of his campaign. Until now. For the first time, I’m seeing the Dean Team off its stride, behaving like mere mortals.   

The hardest thing to do in business is to close a sale, and it’s the same with politics. Dean’s numbers were holding steady in Iowa, Trippi insisted, but there was too much of what the pollsters call “volatility” to suit him. “The numbers are a mess,” he said, meaning that things were still uncomfortably fluid. John Kerry was moving up fast, Dick Gephardt was sinking just as fast, and even John Edwards seemed to be making a late move. Front-runners don’t like that much motion underneath, even if they are ahead.

Joe Trippi, campaign manager for Democratic presidential frontrunner Howard Dean, attends a campaign stop where former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey endorsed Dean January 6, 2004 Des Moines, Iowa.Shaun Heasley / Getty Images North America

So is there another Dean-like volcano about to erupt — a last-minute saga to supersede the Rise of Dean story line? Iowa will begin to give the answer. The snowy ground here is thick with volunteers. The phone lines are clogged with imploring phone calls. The radio and television airwaves are glutted with campaign advertising “spots.”

Dean’s own surge has clearly slowed. To revive it, this self-styled non-Washington politician is trying to goose his campaign in the most traditional way: with endorsements. Al Gore’s seemed to help; Bill Bradley’s clearly did not. Now the campaign is hoping that Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin will endorse, anointing Dean like a knight in a Shakespeare play.

What has the campaign done wrong? Here’s my armchair general’s list, for what it’s worth:

Small logistical mistakes
No biggie, I guess, but if you are going to invite reporters to take part in a conference call, don’t hook them into your own private staff meeting. That’s what the Dean campaign did with reporters in Arizona, and it resulted in stories there quoting the Deanies’ rather sophomoric strategizing. It’s the kind of hurried, amateurish mistake they hadn’t been making.

Are they really ready for prime time? In terms of stagecraft, they aren’t there yet. Dean is self-conscious about his stature. He claims to be five-eight and three-quarters. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in his company and, while he is an energetic presence, he isn’t a tall one. If he’s nearly five-nine, I’m Larry Bird.

But Dean’s problem isn’t his height, it’s his humorlessness. He isn’t a guy to make fun of himself (the way his own dad did, calling himself “Short Me” as he strode energetically through life). In any case, his staff opened him to ridicule by the way they staged the endorsement from former NBA star Bradley. If Dean is going to stand on a soapbox, which, in effect is what he was doing, you don’t allow the TV cameras to film the whole thing from behind. It was a silly, amateurish effort at stage-managing a fact that couldn’t really be hidden in the first place.

Not settling internal tax debate
Late last summer I was told, pretty authoritatively — and reported in Newsweek — that Dean was about to come out with his own tax-cut plan, one that would make the former governor a champion of middle-class cuts and (the arithmetic requires it) of soak-the-rich philosophy. But it turned out that I was talking to only one part of the campaign, and not the right part. Dean never came out with a plan, on the theory that it was better to be simple and consistent — to stick with his more or less original view that all of the Bush tax cuts should be abolished, and that no new cuts should replace them.

Now there is talk that Dean will in fact propose a new tax plan, but it’s too late. He will look like he’s responding to others’ plans, including Wes Clark’s, geared to win the former general votes in anti-tax New Hampshire. Here’s a rule of presidential politics: If you’ve been in the race for a year, you don’t wait until two weeks before the voting starts to announce a fiscal plan for the country. Usually so nimble, the Deanies stumbled on this one. Then again, maybe they won’t offer a new plan. But if that is the case, they and their allies shouldn’t be talking as though it is a possibility now.

Hype out of hand
Trippi is a smart guy — very smart and very experienced. But at times he gets a bit carried away with the wondrousness of the Internet tsunami that Dean generated, and makes claims that are too large for his (and Dean’s) own good. Now and then, Trippi forgets what I call Tully’s Law: There are no straight-line extrapolations in politics; growth curves don’t go on forever.

Last September, when Dean had 450,000 on his e-mail list, Trippi confidently predicted that he would have 900,000 by the end of the year. But the astronomical growth didn’t continue, and the total has barely inched to 600,000. The campaign hoped that 5,000 volunteers would come here to Iowa for the last days. Some 3,500 have showed up — an impressive number but well short of the goal.

Talking up Kerry
Maybe I was being spun silly, and the Deanies are even more Machiavellian than I thought, but I got the distinct sense the other week that they were propping up John Kerry in Iowa — talking up his prospects there at least in part out of a hope that he would do two things for them: ace out Dick Gephardt for second place, thus eliminating Gephardt as a factor in later contests; and give Kerry a boost going into New Hampshire so that he would finish ahead of the guy they are really worried about — Clark.

If that was their game plan, and I think it was, there is at least a chance that they were too clever by half. Kerry has placed all of his bets on doing well here in Iowa — he has the bulk of his resources here now — and he has by all accounts moved into a strong second place position (or at least he had as of the middle of this week). Now the risk for Dean is that Kerry could do too well — and Kerry in close combat is formidable.

Endorsement fever
For a professed outsider and non-politician politician, the Dean campaign in these first Final Days seems too focused, almost obsessed, with endorsements from established figures. What brought Dean to this point was his feisty, anti-establishment flair. I understand why the Dean campaign wants to show that it can “unify the party.” But it’s premature to worry about it so much before the first votes are cast, especially if you are the kind of candidate Dean is supposed to be. Almost no one votes on that basis anyway, especially in knowledgeable and prideful places such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

The Blog is not the world
I get the sense sometimes that the Deanies live in their own world — I call it Dean World — and that if it is OK with the Blog, then they think they are fine. It’s true that no single “gaffe” hurt Dean much, and, for the most part, their importance was dismissed by the chatterers on his various Web sites. But there is a larger universe out there, not just in the Democratic Party, but in the country, and it’s clear that the small cuts have added up to some loss of blood. The campaign was born on the Blog, but it can’t sustain itself there. Trippi knows that, which is why he is so nervous.