WASHINGTON - Howard Dean is the hottest of the nine Democratic candidates for president - in more ways than one. Hot as in mad. And hot as in very successful.
The former Vermont governor has emerged as the angriest of the pack, angry at the war in Iraq, at President Bush, at Republican policies in general. He's angry at the leaders of his own party as well, for not standing up to Bush.
At the same time, he's jumped into the top tier of candidates with a real chance to win the nomination. Dean surged ahead of his rivals in second-quarter fund raising.
Early polls suggest he's the only candidate who could win either of the first two nominating contests, in Iowa and New Hampshire.
One new national poll released Thursday showed Dean gaining five points among likely voters since May, the biggest jump of any candidate, though he still placed only fourth in a tight top quartet led by Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and including Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri.
Yet the very edge that's propelling Dean's candidacy today could hurt him later. The heat that excites liberal Democratic activists now could singe more temperate swing voters later when they tune into the 2004 campaign.
"He's certainly tapping into anger and frustration among Democrats," said Joe Lockhart, a veteran Democratic strategist and former White House press secretary for Bill Clinton. "Whether it's a good long-term strategy remains to be seen."
Dean aides admit he shares the anger and frustration that supporters feel toward both Bush and Democratic Party leaders. But they say his candidacy is about other issues and larger than raw emotion.
"It's a huge mistake to say his candidacy is only based on anger. That's not the only thing," said spokesman Eric Schmeltzer. "If any other candidate assumes he's only an angry candidate and that he will fizzle, they're sorely mistaken."
Dean, 54, started his long-shot quest for the Democratic presidential nomination a year ago, talking mainly about his promise of universal health care and a balanced budget. But he started drawing crowds - and support - last fall when he was the only candidate who opposed Bush's call for war with Iraq as unjustified. At the time, support for the war was widespread.
Four prominent rivals - Gephardt, Kerry, Lieberman and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina - voted to authorize the war. Two later candidates - Sen. Bob Graham of Florida and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio - voted against war.
Democrats who opposed the war found a champion in Dean. But more importantly to many of them, Dean appeared to be someone who would stand up to Bush even when the president was enormously popular.
Now public anxiety is rising about Bush's justification for war and about the war's aftermath, and the other Democratic candidates are rushing to join Dean in challenging Bush.
"Why were they not asking these questions and seeking the truth nine months ago, before they voted to give the president blank-check authority to go to war?" Dean demanded in a recent speech. "That is not leadership."
Yet many Democrats fear that Dean is too hot to win against Bush.
Mark Penn, a pollster for rival candidate Leiberman, warned this week that Democrats risk a landslide loss if they cater only to the anger of liberal interest groups at the expense of moderate voters.
Democrats already have solid support from their liberal base of minorities, union members, gays and the working poor, Penn said. But they're losing ground to Republicans among several fast-growing segments of the population, including suburban families and white-collar workers.
"He is clearly energizing the base," Dan Malloy, the Democratic mayor of Stamford, Conn., said during a recent meeting of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "But can he can expand that base? I don't think so. He has to cut back on that rhetoric, be a little less shrill."
It's not that anger is an ineffective tool in politics. Anger at Democrats in Congress and the White House in 1994 helped Republicans take over the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. But it's different in presidential politics, where voters want to be comfortable with their choice even if they're angry at the other side, said Scott Reed, a veteran Republican strategist.
"Dean comes across as super-hot," said Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. "If you turn off the TV and just look at the picture, with his arms flailing and the sweating, he comes across as a little scary."
Dean admits he has looked scary in some television appearances. After watching a tape of himself in a South Carolina debate in which the camera caught him sniping at one candidate and glowering at another, Dean told aides he looked "horrible," according to his spokesman, Schmeltzer.
But it's not as bad as critics suggest, Schmeltzer said.
"If he really looked that much like Satan," said Schmeltzer, "he wouldn't be getting that much support."
For more on the Howard Dean campaign on the Web, go to www.deanforamerica.com
(The new national poll referred to in graf 5 was by Ipsos/Cook Political Report. It was taken between July 8-10 and July 22-24 among 2,000 adults including 501 likely Democratic voters. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.2 percentage points for the entire sample and 4.5 percentage points for likely voters.)
Copyright 2003 Knight Ridder Newspapers