Joseph Seringer, a mortgage company manager here, is calm, rational and well-spoken. But he's also furious at President Bush for instigating a war in Iraq that Seringer believes was based on lies and deceit. He's just as mad at Democrats in Washington who signed up for the ride.
Maybe it goes without saying that in the Democratic presidential race, Seringer would walk over broken glass for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
"Dean is the only one who had the guts to stand up and oppose the war in Iraq," Seringer said as he stood in the crush of a Dean fund-raiser at a stylish coffeehouse here last week. "The others were sissies; they just fell in line behind the Bush propaganda. And that war was a lie from the beginning."
If Dean wins the Democratic nomination next year, the explanation may be as simple as this: He opposed a president most Democrats detest when that president launched a war most Democrats loathe.
Lots of ingredients have contributed to Dean's rise this year: his blunt, plain-spoken style, his outsider status, his campaign's mastery of the Internet and his charge that Washington Democrats haven't been tough enough on Bush.
But it was Dean's opposition to the war in Iraq that crystallized all of these factors, and it still provides the most dynamic source of energy for his campaign.
Some Democrats are drawn to Dean's support for universal health care or gay civil unions, and his promise to balance the federal budget always wins dutiful applause. But none of these topics has emerged as real differences between him and his Democratic rivals. To Dean's following, the moment he stood out from the pack is when he stood up against the war. Opposition to the war in Iraq seems every bit as important to Dean's campaign as opposition to the Vietnam War was to George McGovern's successful bid for the Democratic nomination in 1972.
Consider Mary DaSilva, a nurse from Austin who paid $125 to see Dean at the fund-raiser. The first time she heard of him was when someone gave her a Dean flier at a rally against the Iraq war in March. She put the flier in a drawer but found it again in April while the war was raging and virtually all figures in public life were supporting the effort.
"I was thinking, 'Where are the Democrats?' " she said. "I just felt so betrayed by them. So when Howard Dean stood up and said it was wrong, it just drew me to him like a magnet."
Not all Democrats are so fervent. But most share DaSilva's basic verdict on the war. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released last week, nearly three-fifths of Democrats said the United States never should have gone to war with Iraq. Only about 40% of Democrats said they considered the Iraq war part of the struggle against terrorism, as Bush has portrayed it. And nearly 70% said the war's aftermath was going badly.
What's more, it appears the Democratic activists critical of the war are much more energized than the war's supporters. The failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the controversies over Bush's use of prewar intelligence, and the postwar casualties and violence are reinforcing a sense among the war's opponents that they were right all along. "Those of us who said the war was a bad idea now have a chance to say it was a bad idea," said James Hargrove, a retired programmer who was at Dean's Austin fund-raiser.
The resurgence of that antiwar sentiment is unsettling the ground for everyone else in the 2004 race.
Most immediately affected are the leading Democrats who supported U.S. action — Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, John Edwards of North Carolina and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. All are facing scorn from an antiwar left that sees their enlistment not only as a policy mistake but a character flaw. Except for Lieberman, who many believe was operating on ideological conviction, the verdict at Dean's Austin fund-raiser was that the Democratic contenders who voted for the war knew it was misguided but supported Bush because they believed it would inoculate them in a general election.
"I think the war right now is a total negative for anyone who was for it," says a senior strategist for one of the Democrats who backed Bush. "And the only thing that changes that is conditions improving on the ground in Iraq. If things continue to deteriorate, we are swimming upstream."
The force of that current has encouraged all the Democrats to more harshly criticize Bush's handling of the prewar intelligence and postwar reconstruction. In that way, Dean's rise guarantees Bush will face a more aggressive critique of the way he has managed the war and, especially, its aftermath, no matter who wins the Democratic race. After the grass-roots outpouring for Dean, no Democratic nominee can afford to submerge the issue as the party did in the 2002 midterm elections; Bush will have to work to defend his decisions.
But the war may create the greatest challenge for Dean himself. It has provided the foundation of his campaign; it might also impose the ceiling. While most Democrats now consider the war a mistake, 60% of independents in last week's Gallup Poll said it was the right decision. Those are voters Dean will need if he makes it to a general election. And while opposition to the war benefits Dean among Democrats overall, recent polls suggest it could still be a problem for him in more conservative states that vote early in the primary season, such as South Carolina.
For Dean, the critical question is whether he can maintain the passionate enthusiasm of his antiwar foot soldiers while convincing more moderate voters, even in the primary, that he can be trusted with the nation's security. Tellingly, Dean reminds voters in his stump speech that he supported the first Gulf War and the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Yet conviction and political necessity virtually ensure that Dean will continue to stress his opposition to the war in Iraq. The biggest applause in his speech still comes when he reminds audiences he was the only leading Democratic contender who opposed the war, and aides say that if nominated, he is committed to arguing that Iraq was the wrong war at the wrong time.
Republicans believe that's an argument Dean ultimately can't win. Many Democratic strategists privately agree. But a party rank and file eager to hear that case made against Bush is propelling Dean to the front of the Democratic field — and the war in Iraq back to the center of campaign 2004.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times