The New Electable Howard Dean

Evolution of a Not-So-Radical Contender

"Eight months ago, Howard Dean was no one with nothing from nowhere," said Phil Noble, head of South Carolina's Democratic Leadership Council. "Now it's over, except for the countin' and the shoutin'."

To viewers just tuning in to the Dean show, Gore's surprising stamp of approval was a windfall. But to some who had been watching, the doctor's horse was simply winning, and Gore wanted part of it.

illustration: Ward Sutton

That day in South Carolina, Dean delivered a serious speech on race, not at Joiquim's church but before a mostly white crowd in a hotel conference room. He charged that Republicans since the Nixon administration had been running their Southern campaigns based on "guns, God, and gays." He reminded the group that phrases like "racial quotas" and "welfare queens" were code, signals to white America that "minorities were to blame for all of America's problems." Dean's speech emphasized a commonality of concerns, irrespective of race.

"There is nothing black or white about having to live from one paycheck to another," he told the crowd. "Jobs, health care, education, democracy, and opportunity. These are the issues that can unite America."

Dean has spoken on these issues before, but never in as much detail. And he did it in the South, with Jesse Jackson Jr. at his side.

"He came and delivered a message," said Phil Noble, who watched the speech. "That's unusual for a politician, and vital in South Carolina." Noble also noticed how white the room was, and he blamed the Internet. While online organizing has been Dean's great strength, many blacks don't have access to computers, fueling the charge that the campaign is indifferent to black voters.

"If you sat down and designed a candidate to be maximally attractive to Southern voters, it wouldn't be Howard Dean," said Noble. "But that doesn't mean we won't accept him. He talks a little funny, but our ears will get attuned." Southerners, Noble pointed out, are "disproportionately without health care, insecure about jobs, and grossly disproportionately concerned with poor education in schools."

"Besides," said Noble, "Southerners like feisty people. And Dean is a Yankee redneck."

At the end of Dean's remarks, he and Jackson performed a kind of duet. After Jackson called up voters who might not be registered—because they had changed their names or were about to turn 18—Dean shook their hands. Jackson, like his father, prides himself on his voter registration work.

The congressman was effusive after the speech, telling reporters how impressed he was with the outreach message and pledging to work "this entire state on behalf of Governor Dean." But when questioned about Dean's contention that there are only "human concerns"—and not, perhaps, issues that just affect blacks—Jackson seemed to hesitate.

"I think he understands this issue enough, and he will grow beyond this point," he said.

By week's end, Representatives Jesse Jackson Jr., Robert Scott, and Elijah Cummings had all endorsed Dean. The Black Commentator, a widely read progressive online journal, called his speech "the most important statement on race in American politics by a mainstream white politician in nearly 40 years."

Last month, a reporter spotted a printout tacked to a wall in Dean's New York campaign headquarters. It was a posting from the Note, ABC News' website on politics. Entries on a long list of observations about the Dean campaign included: "What doesn't kill Howard Dean only makes him stronger"; and "Howard Dean Doesn't Have Cable TV."

Observation #16 was more serious, if not a little wordy.

"Dean can theoretically win a general election race against President Bush, but not without growing significantly as a candidate and a person, including and especially in rhetorical and symbolic relationship to faith, family, freedom, and national security."

Eric Schmeltzer, the campaign's New York press secretary, admitted he hadn't even noticed the entry. The list was on the wall, he said, because of observation #18, which claimed that Dean staffers have more fun than those who work for other campaigns.

But #16 seems to have been internalized, and in December—despite the Dean campaign's attempts to deny the change—a transformation seemed to be under way.

So Dean stood at the pulpit that Sunday in South Carolina, anxious to make new friends. He had listened to Jackson, his host in the South, and had perhaps considered articulating a little faith, freedom, and values.

"I'm reminded that Jesus saw the woman at the well," he said. "I'm reminded that Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple. I'm reminded that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for they had everything and gave nothing to those who were in need." This was more Jesus than anyone could remember from the former governor. All the allegory needed was a little direction.

"We need jobs in this country," said Dr. Dean. Then he threw out the red meat.

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