Democrat Howard Dean moved quickly to protect his lead in Iowa and stem the fallout over an NBC News report on his comments years ago on Canadian television that caucuses are dominated by extremist special interests.
“I support the Iowa caucus,” Dean, who is in a fierce fight to win Iowa’s presidential caucuses, told The Associated Press on Thursday night.
He did not address his comments on the Canadian program, but said if elected he would press for Iowa to be the first contest of the 2008 campaign.
“I have spent nearly two years here in Iowa, talking to Iowans and campaigning in all 99 counties,” Dean said. “I believe it’s time to stand together, in common purpose, to take our country back and the Iowa caucus is where it all begins.”
Dean was responding to the disclosure of a videotape of a Canadian television program he did in 2000 as governor of neighboring Vermont.
'Dominated by special interests'
On the program, Dean said: “If you look at the caucuses system, they are dominated by the special interests, in both sides, in both parties. The special interests don’t represent the centrist tendencies of the American people. They represent the extremes.”
The disclosure came at an awkward time for front-runner Dean, with the race tightening and the caucuses less than 10 days away on Jan. 19. Polls show Dean and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt in a fierce fight for the caucuses, with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry running a close third.
Dean achieved his front-runner status based on his standing in the polls both nationally and in key early states, his organization and fund-raising. But as the race has tightened he has come under withering fire from his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination over his issue positions and for saying things he later has to clarify.
Iowa Democratic Party leaders quickly rejected Dean’s videotaped assertion, while his rivals seized on it as yet another example of why they think he would be vulnerable against President Bush in November.
“The governor believes the Iowa caucuses remain a good proving ground for candidates as they take their messages into living rooms and around kitchen tables of real people,” said Amanda Crumley, spokeswoman for Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat who is neutral in the race.
Gordon Fischer, the state’s Democratic chairman, disagreed with Dean.
“The Iowa caucuses are dominated by regular Iowans who are concerned about bread and butter issues that all Americans care about,” Fischer said.
Rivals seize the moment
Some of Dean’s rivals jumped on his comments.
Gephardt called an airport news conference where he labeled the comments “unbelievable” and said Iowa Democrats deserve an explanation.
“I can’t understand his comments about special interests dominating the caucuses,” Gephardt said. “Who are these special interests?”
He said he sees only “ordinary people” as he campaigns for the caucuses and that Dean should address the issue.
“He should certainly give them an explanation of what he meant when he said these things,” Gephardt said. “Iowans deserve an explanation.”
Kim Rubey, a spokesman for John Edwards said the North Carolina senator “fully appreciates what he has learned by campaigning in all of Iowa’s 99 counties.”
Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter quipped that Dean “is going to extremes of his own to win over Iowa voters.”
'Which Howard Dean?'
“Which Howard Dean are Iowans going to vote for — the one who insults them, or the one who will be soon releasing yet another clarifying statement?”
Dean made the comments on “The Editors,” which covered U.S. and Canadian politics and was filmed in Montreal, not far north of Vermont. NBC News reviewed 90 of Dean’s appearances on the show since 1996 and first reported his comments about the caucuses Thursday night.
Dean said he was confident the comments would not damage his efforts in Iowa.
“On caucus night, I am confident that we’ll have terrific turnout that reflects a new energy and a new belief that people have the power to take back their country,” he told the AP.