Democrats Provide Fodder for Anti-Dean Campaign Ads

Originally posted: January 9, 2004

Greencastle, Ind. – The Des Moines Register‘s debate Sunday signaled the gun-lap in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

A little more than a week from now, an estimated 130,000 Iowa caucus-goers will be the surrogates for Democrats all over America. This field of candidates already has spent more than 325 days in the state, courting voters in living rooms, cafes, union halls and church basements.

They have learned that economic concerns rank highest in the minds of Iowans.

“Even Iowans who have jobs fear losing them,” says Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who hosted an individual forum with each candidate. They also learned that the war in Iraq ranks high, that in a post-9/11 world, the old slogan, “It’s the economy stupid,” is no longer enough.

Because the Democratic establishment feared a long, divisive and expensive primary campaign this time, they encouraged other states to move up their primary dates.

Enough did to create a crowd after Iowa and New Hampshire, leading to the belief that the Democratic nomination will be sewed up by March 2, when New York, Ohio and California vote.

The tenor of the Register debate indicates we have entered the mean season. No opportunity was passed for the trailing candidates to take a shot at the frontrunner, Howard Dean.

Dick Gephardt won Iowa when he last ran for president in 1988 and is desperate to do so again or face being among the first to go broke and drop out. Gephardt repeatedly attacked Dean for being insufficiently protectionist on trade in a state where many blame NAFTA for the hemorrhage of jobs.

John Kerry, once considered the most likely nominee, charged Dean with being “lite” on national security and questioned his temperament and judgment for suggesting Osama bin Laden might have to get a fair trial to determine his actual guilt for the terror of 9/11.

Joe Lieberman, who has withdrawn from Iowa, had no real purpose at the debate except to hammer Dean for his failure to support President Bush on the Iraq War, the very thing that propelled Dean to the top of the field in the early going, and for Dean’s view that Saddam Hussein in captivity is not all that important because there is more al-Qaida activity in Iraq now than before the war.

Kerry, Lieberman and Gephardt each has been in public life for 30 years, and while they hope that what they say about Dean today will soak in with Iowa voters, they know it will also be used against Dean by Republicans should he win the nomination.

Running for president in 1992, Al Gore was the first to criticize Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis for his policy on prison furloughs, a legitimate issue. But Gore’s critique presaged Republicans’ use of the escaped rapist-murderer Willie Horton to tag Dukakis as hopelessly soft on crime.

In 1996, millionaire publisher Steve Forbes ran a barrage of witheringly negative commercials against GOP frontrunner Bob Dole, saturating the airwaves in the early primary states. Dole was depicted as a lifetime creature of the Washington establishment, deeply enmeshed in the corrupt, inside-the-Beltway tradeoffs and payoffs and a captive of the special interests. Eventually, to many voters, Dole became what Forbes said he was.

It used to be said of Democrats that when told to get up a firing squad, they immediately formed a circle. This time, they all understand the target. The candidates lining up to take their shots at Dean all believe they are raising legitimate issues.

Perhaps they are, and how Dean takes the fire will reveal important attributes of his temperament.

In the short run, however, the piling on may prove counterproductive.

Previous attacks on Dean have only served to solidify the commitment of his supporters. When he comes under fire, they write more checks.

Also, Kerry, Gephardt and Lieberman have to face the fact that they may be doing Karl Rove’s work for him.

Imagine an October GOP commercial with pictures of Saddam being pulled from his spider hole and the voice of Joe Lieberman saying, as he did in the Iowa debate: “I don’t know how anyone could say we’re not safer with a homicidal maniac, a brutal dictator, an enemy of the United States, a supporter of terrorism, a murderer of hundreds of thousands of his own people . . . in prison instead of in power.” The tag line: “Don’t forget what other Democrats said about Howard Dean.”

Think how embarrassed Joe Lieberman’s Democratic mother would be to have to watch that commercial.

(Ken Bode, a former senior political analyst for CNN, is the Pulliam professor of journalism at DePauw University.)

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