FORMER VICE-PRESIDENT Al Gore’s announcement last Sunday that he would not run for president in 2004 had a big impact on the only two politicians who’ve made official moves toward the Democratic presidential primary: Massachusetts senator John Kerry, who formed an exploratory committee to raise money for a presidential run, and Vermont governor Howard Dean, who’s already declared his candidacy. Kerry is now the frontrunner for the 2004 contest, while Dean is poised to play the spoiler. And like most spoilers, his strengths play into the weaknesses of his opponent.
A medical doctor by training, Dean is a straight talker who pushes a solidly progressive agenda: he supports universal health care and gay rights, and he opposes war with Iraq. But he’s also pro-gun and anti-deficit-spending — just the sort of unexpected contradiction that Beltway pundits love. As a result, the small-state governor has already garnered a stack of positive press clippings. Last June, the New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn likened Dean to Arizona senator John McCain, the sort of presidential candidate who can offer up a refreshing bit of honesty and further his agenda, whether he wins or not. William Powers of the National Journal wrote last month that "nobody should write him off just yet." And David Broder of the Washington Post recently lauded the Vermonter’s "eclectic mix of issues." All of which means that Dean is perfectly positioned, not to win — no one expects that to happen — but to give the centrist Kerry a lot of grief.
In a strange turn of political events, the first major battle of the 2004 presidential race will take place in New England, with a host of local candidates eager to win it. The New Hampshire primary is scheduled for January 27, following only the Iowa caucus. (See "Battle for New England," News and Features, February 15.) At least three of the many candidates bandied about as presidential hopefuls are from New England; in addition to Kerry and Dean, there’s Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman. And there are four if you include Connecticut senator Chris Dodd. (Other potential candidates include John Edwards of North Carolina, former House minority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, General Wesley Clark of Arkansas, and the Reverend Al Sharpton of New York.) But in the very narrow universe of New England candidates, Dean could be the pebble in Kerry’s shoe — a nuisance that hinders Kerry just enough to trip up his shot at the nomination.
For his part, Dean evinces no ill will toward Kerry, nor even a sense that his actions might affect the junior senator from Massachusetts. But whatever comes to Dean — the attention he gets, the money he raises — cuts directly into Kerry’s support. Consider Dean’s visit to Massachusetts last Thursday. First he appeared on Keller at Large, WLVI’s Sunday-morning political talk show with host Jon Keller. Midway through the show, Keller asked Dean what he adds to the race given that Massachusetts is already offering up a much more well-known and well-financed candidate for the nomination. "I’m not going to attack John Kerry. I think John Kerry’s contributed a lot to this country," Dean said, before dishing his barbs: "John Kerry’s never had to balance a budget; I have. John Kerry has never delivered health insurance to anybody; I have. John Kerry has never delivered services to kids, early intervention to kids; I have."
During the show, Keller pressed Dean on his positions on health care (Dean favors a form of universal health care that requires contributions from plan beneficiaries to keep costs down); marriage for same-sex couples (Dean opposes marriage rights but backs Vermont-style civil unions for gay couples and favors the extension of federal benefits to such arrangements); and fiscal matters (Dean is a deficit hawk who opposes tax cuts but would limit spending). Through it all, Dean, true to his image as a McCain-like truth teller, was relatively straightforward and blunt. Afterward, off camera, Dean asked Keller how he performed. The pair discussed the relative brevity of Dean’s responses, and the governor appeared proud of the short answers he managed to give to complicated questions. "One thing that helps," he offered, "is that I know what I think. I don’t care what the polls say." Dean didn’t target any particular candidate with this comment. He could have had in mind any number of leading politicians prone to verbosity. But his comments couldn’t help but bring to mind Kerry, whose performance on NBC’s Meet the Press on December 1, during which he announced his decision to form a presidential-campaign exploratory committee, and some commentators faulted for its ... verbosity. Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh, for example, criticized Kerry for being unduly wordy in his response to a question about his vote against the 1991 Gulf War: "One astonishing word storm later (more than 350, punctuated by three additional probings from Russert), Kerry still wouldn’t admit he had been mistaken in any measure."
After the Channel 56 interview, Dean traveled to Steve Grossman’s house in Newton. There, Grossman and developer Gerald Schuster (a major donor to Bill and Hillary Clinton) hosted a gathering of some 100 big-money donors to raise funds for Dean’s presidential run. (The event capped two days of Boston fundraising for Dean.) Winning Grossman’s support represents something of a coup for Dean. Ever since Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign, Grossman has been at the center of national Democratic fundraising efforts. (He raised money for Dukakis in 1988, Paul Tsongas in 1992, Bill Clinton after he defeated Tsongas, and Al Gore in 2000. He also took a turn as Clinton’s chief fundraiser in 1998 as the chair of the Democratic National Committee.) It’s possible that Kerry — with the more than $3 million he’s already raised for 2004 and his marriage to Teresa Heinz (net worth $675 million) — doesn’t need the Grossman-Schuster fundraising axis. That said, any serious presidential candidate can’t be happy that a major font of political largesse is supporting a rival politician. (Another major local fundraiser usually linked with Grossman — Weston’s Alan Solomont, who served as the finance chair both of Grossman’s campaign for governor and of the DNC during Grossman’s tenure as party chair — told the Phoenix Tuesday he also plans to help raise money for Kerry.)
"To have 232 people come and raise just about $100,000 in John Kerry’s hometown the week he announces for president says volumes about Dean’s ability to raise money and gain support as a candidate," says Grossman. (Not that Kerry necessarily wants Schuster’s money, in any case. He recently gave a donation that he’d received from Schuster to the SEIU’s campaign on behalf of nursing-home workers employed by Schuster in Wilbraham. The workers have been engaged in a three-year-long contract dispute with Schuster’s company, Continental Wingate. The union has pressured candidates not to accept any money from Schuster and its members picketed the Dean fundraiser at Grossman’s house.)
When Dean got inside Grossman’s home after a brief and civil exchange with the protesters — he simply introduced himself — he was still thinking about his public comments about Kerry on Keller’s show. "I got myself into trouble with John Kerry," he said to no one in particular as he stood in Grossman’s foyer. "He kept asking and asking me about John Kerry." Dean then recounted snippets of the interview to Grossman and whomever else was in earshot. (It’s true that Keller asked about Kerry, but it was no Tim Russert–style interrogation.) Later, a Democratic activist asked Dean about Kerry, and he replied, "I don’t want to say anything bad about John Kerry — especially in his home state."
That doesn’t stop his supporters from making the inevitable comparisons. At the Grossman residence, a small group of activists was buzzing about the potential 2004 field and Kerry’s name came up. I asked one of them, Brookline realtor Chobee Hoy, why she is with Dean at this point and not Kerry. "I think I’m here not so much as anti-Kerry but pro-Dean," says Hoy, noting that Kerry "didn’t speak out against the war" with Iraq. Regarding Dean, she says, "Everything I read about him suggests he’s the kind of Democrat who’s in short order now — who will say what he thinks no matter the consequences." Although Dean didn’t hear my exchange with Hoy, he should be happy about it. Apparently without coaching from Dean, at least none that I witnessed, Hoy had keyed into the exact qualities Dean wants voters to notice.