Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, already considered the front-runner in the
Democratic presidential race, will dramatically widen his advantage with a series
of moves expected over the next few days.
Today, Dean is likely to announce
that he will become the first Democratic candidate ever to opt out of the public
financing system, a decision that could expand the financial advantage he already
enjoys over his rivals.
On Wednesday, he's expected to receive an unprecedented
joint endorsement from two of the nation's largest and most politically sophisticated
unions: the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation
of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Together, these developments would
create an imposing organizational and financial challenge for Dean's rivals —
whose best hope of overcoming his lead at this point may be Dean's tendency to
wound himself with controversial remarks, like his recent comments about the Confederate
"He was the front-runner before; he now becomes the big gorilla," Tony
Coelho, a campaign chairman for Al Gore in the 2000 presidential race, said Friday.
"I don't see anybody in the whole scheme of things who can beat him now. The question
will be whether Dean can stop Dean."
Such comments underscore the remarkable
evolution of Dean's campaign.
He began his candidacy as a classic political
insurgent who had little money or name awareness but hoped to excite grass-roots
enthusiasm through relentless campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire — site of
the first contests in the nomination process — with a message that criticized
the party establishment.
Since then, Dean has become a hybrid candidate for
whom there is no exact precedent. While he continues to stir excitement with the
fervent anti-establishment message, he's also accumulating the financial and organizational
resources that usually flow only to a candidate favored by the party establishment.
For Dean, the gains are reinforcing each other. One reason he is getting labor
support is that he has demonstrated enough fund-raising clout to consider leaving
the public financing system — which, if he wins the nomination, would put him
in better position to compete with President Bush.
"For a lot of people, the
possibility of [opting out of the system] puts an extra check mark next to our
name," said Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager.
What makes this movement toward
Dean more remarkable is that it is occurring while many Democrats still fear that
his liberal views on the Iraq war and gay rights, and his sometimes volcanic temperament,
would make him an easy general election opponent for Bush.
A senior strategist
for one of Dean's rivals said that by aligning behind Dean, the SEIU and AFSCME
are repeating the mistake that an array of labor leaders made in 1984, when they
helped power former Vice President Walter Mondale to the Democratic nomination
— only to see him crushed by President Reagan in the general election.
from having traveled in the South and Southwest you are going to end up with a
candidate [in Dean] who is virtually unelectable in the general election," the
But while many centrist Democrats still share those fears,
others have reassessed Dean. In particular, he's turned heads by his ability to
raise money in small donations, largely through the Internet, and his success
at exciting his party's core supporters — which many strategists, both Democrats
and Republicans, are coming to view as more central to winning in 2004 than converting
For Dean, the expected endorsement next week from the 1.4-million-member
AFSCME may be invaluable in quashing questions about his electability.
respects, his support from the 1.6-million-member SEIU is not that surprising,
since the union's main focus is expanding access to health care — Dean's top domestic
priority — and its president, Andrew Stern, is considered one of the nation's
most liberal labor leaders.
But AFSCME President Gerald W. McEntee is regarded
as one of labor's most politically pragmatic and savvy leaders. His focus on finding
the strongest general election candidate earlier led him to flirt with endorsements
of Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts or retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark.
McEntee to join Stern behind Dean would send a powerful signal to other Democrats
that key parts of the party establishment have grown more comfortable with Dean's
prospects against Bush.
Although the AFSCME will not make its decision official
until a meeting of its international board on Wednesday, sources say McEntee has
already notified other Democratic contenders that the union will join the SEIU
in endorsing Dean.
"Dean has run the best campaign … but at the same time,
he's dogged by a persistent critique that does not burden the other first-tier
candidates — which is that he can't win," said one AFSCME official who asked not
to be identified. "So the imprimatur of the two most politically active, most
politically sophisticated unions … sort of handles that problem."
A. Gephardt of Missouri still has the most support from organized labor. He's
received endorsements from 20 unions with a total of roughly 5 million members.
But his aides acknowledge that the joint support from Stern and McEntee could
inspire other unions to back Dean. These could include unions representing teachers,
communications workers and electricians, Democratic and labor sources say.
broke the dam, but as soon as AFSCME joins, because of [McEntee's] credibility,
that all of a sudden puts the crown on Dean and someone is going to have to knock
it off," said Coelho, who is neutral in the race. "You are going to see elected
officials join, you are going to see other unions join; it is going to start a
Regardless of whether other unions follow, the dual endorsements
should boost Dean in the key early states. In Iowa, where polls have shown Dean
locked in a close race with Gephardt, the AFSCME is one of the largest unions,
with 28,000 members. In New Hampshire, where labor is weaker, the SEIU is perhaps
the best-organized union.
The unions can do less for Dean in the next round
of contests on Feb. 3, which occur mostly in nonunion Southern and Southwestern
states, such as South Carolina, Oklahoma and Arizona.
But even if Dean stumbles
in those contests, the union endorsements significantly improve his odds of reestablishing
an advantage in mid-February showdowns in Michigan and Wisconsin, two states where
labor is critical.
In Michigan, which will vote in a caucus that magnifies
the importance of organization, the SEIU counts 45,000 members and the AFSCME
60,000. They number a combined 70,000 members in Wisconsin.
decision to abandon the public financing system could also provide him an edge
in the early contests. Under the system, candidates agree to spending limits in
return for federal funds that match the first $250 of every contribution they
Dean and his advisors have framed his expected withdrawal as a way
to compete with Bush, who has already opted out of the system and aims to spend
at least $175 million through the Republican convention in September.
who remain in the public financing system will be allowed to spend only $49 million
through their convention in July. In all likelihood, the eventual winner will
have to spend almost all that money to secure the nomination by March, leaving
the candidate unable to raise or spend virtually anything from then until the
convention. That's the prospect Dean has raised to justify leaving the system.
But opting out would also allow Dean to break the caps that limit how much
candidates can spend during the primaries in individual states, such as Iowa and
New Hampshire. That would mean Dean could spend more in those states than his
rivals who stay within the system.
Given that prospect, several campaign finance
reform advocates this week urged Dean to voluntarily abide by the spending limits
for the primaries, even if he opts out of the public finance system.
D. Feingold (D-Wis.) said Friday that by voluntarily accepting the limits, Dean
could maintain a level playing field with the Democrats participating in the public
system during the primaries but would preserve his ability to compete financially
with Bush through the spring and summer if he wins the nomination.
at least demonstrate that the decision to opt out is prompted by the president's
unprecedented fund-raising and not a desire to overwhelm" other Democratic candidates.
On Friday, Kerry said that if he opted out of the system, he would not spend
more than the total allowed during the primaries "until a nominee is effectively
Dean's camp said it is only beginning to consider those requests.
But with so many dominos falling his way, most observers consider it unlikely
that Dean would accept any self-imposed limits that would inhibit his ability
to strike a quick knockout blow.
A top advisor to one of his rivals said that
given the financial and organizational resources flowing to Dean, "The truth is
you are looking at a situation where if Dean wins Iowa and New Hampshire, everyone
else is toast."
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times