Nine Dems, six rounds, one fight against Bush... ALBUQUERQUE -- If the insurgent campaign of Howard Dean offers any indication, rank-and-file Democrats are hankering for blood. Not actual blood of course, but the kind of Bush-blasting rhetorical put downs that won't wrinkle a nice pantsuit or a pressed military uniform, or a blouse fit for an evening on the town.
This is the dress of the Democratic faithful, union folks, activists and party people assembled outside the University of New Mexico's Popejoy Hall in Albuquerque for the first of six scheduled primary debates between the nine largely unknown Democrats who are seeking their party's nomination to take on Bush.
As they wait for their tickets in half a dozen long lines, there's no shortage of anxious chatter amid the glow of TV lights, the abundance of security, and the omnipresence of slick-suited campaign staffers and media types who offer the distinct impression that they're connected with someone, or something, of major political consequence.
Cindy Benz is from Rio Rancho, N.M., and works as a negotiator for AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees), a union representing government workers. After a little prodding, she confesses that she's leaning toward Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry because she thinks he's the only one capable of beating Bush in 2004. "September 11 changed me and I'm now more of a hawk," Benz said, before adding that Kerry's military background gives him the credibility to be elected.
Benz's friend Lynn Buhaug politely disagrees, applauding former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean for his outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq -- "that's number one as far as I'm concerned" -- and the pull-no-punches rhetoric that's earned him the support of liberals across the country.
Ultimately, both middle-aged women express a common and unsurprising sentiment: Whichever candidate gets the official nod at the party's Boston convention next summer will receive their support. The prospect of another Bush presidency, they agree, trumps all ideological or single-issue concerns.
Sponsored by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, last week's debate came on the heels of a Zogby poll declaring Dean ahead of his closest rival Kerry by 21 percentage points.
Thanks to Colorado's Republican leanings -- not to mention the cancellation of our presidential primary for budgetary reasons -- when it comes to the presidential race, Colorado is paid about as much heed as a solemn stepchild.
Not so for The Land of Enchantment. Flanked by red strongholds like Arizona and Texas, New Mexico proved to be a very swinging state in the 2000 elections. It was there that Al Gore squeaked past Bush by a mere 366 votes.
The other reason New Mexico matters is its ethnic makeup: 42 percent of its population is Hispanic. While it's no secret that both parties are vying to ingratiate themselves to the fastest growing demographic, Republicans have been making significant inroads in what was once written off as Democrat turf. While Gore outpolled Bush among Hispanics by 62 percent to 35 percent in 2000, Bush's numbers were higher than any previous Republican candidate.
So perhaps not surprisingly, last Friday's debate was moderated by two Hispanics, PBS's Ray Suarez and Univision's Maria Elena Salinas, who posed questions in both languages -- a first for a presidential debate. The eight candidates on hand (Al Sharpton couldn't make it) did their best at ethnic flattery by peppering their responses with sloppy Spanglish. Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich began several of his ripostes in America's second language, while the most groan-inducing effort came from North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who continued the debate's preferred mode of discourse (Bush bashing) by stating, "The president goes around the country speaking Spanish, but the only Spanish he speaks when it comes to jobs is, 'Hasta la vista.'"
If one were to gauge the race by the signage of supporters surrounding the University, one might conclude that the primary's true contenders were Dean and Kucinich, with Kerry scrambling for a nip at their heels. Though the Independent kept its eyes peeled, no one wearing Joe Lieberman or Carol Moseley Braun paraphernalia could be found.
Like most political events, the pre-debate carnival did not want for clowns. Near the Dean pre-debate rally, a graying man carted a long narrow sign that read "Revolution Is Inevitable: Why Not Now?" With a pleased grin, he jockeyed for TV camera visibility before some Students for Dean organizers ran interference. Unwilling to provide his name when asked what he thought of Dean, he pointed to his sign and said, "Have you ever heard Howard Dean say anything like this?"
Other signs were more moderate, if not less amusing. "RX Dr. Dean for Acute Bushitis" and "Deadheads for Dean."
Of the nine official candidates, Dean, a medical doctor, is both the front-runner and the indisputable media darling. Last month alone, he found himself on the covers of Time and Newsweek, on TV with Charlie Rose and Larry King, in addition to being the subject of both glowing and denunciatory opinion pieces in newspapers and magazines across the country.
John McCain without the Purple Heart, Ross Perot without the pie charts, Dean has defied the scolding of his party's leadership and the naysaying of critics. But media frenzy alone is not the reason why the NRA-approved doctor is creating such a buzz.
The oft-repeated charge is that Dean is too liberal, that he's fired up the Ralph Nader element, that his signing of Vermont's historic gay civil union legislation renders him unelectable. Dean has also ruffled the feathers of powerful party moderates, like the influential Democratic Leadership Council, by laying claim to the legacy of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone by declaring that he too "represents the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."
Harnessing the Internet
Nevertheless, Dean's track record is hardly one of a bona fide lefty. Known in his home state for balancing budgets, getting straight A's from the NRA, and supporting the death penalty, "Howard Dean" and "liberal" have only coalesced since his appearance on the national stage.
One of the first candidates to effectively harness the Internet for connecting supporters and fund-raising -- Dean proudly told his audience that his average campaign donation was just over $80. At last count, the Dean war chest hovered around $10 million, the largest of any of his rivals, but only a quarter of that amassed by President Bush.
At the Students for Dean rally on the University quad, crowd members, unlike most of the other University of New Mexico students the Independent spoke with, could at least name one of the nine candidates. A junior media arts major, Frank Larson, said he likes Dean because of his stance on health care. "He wants to give health care to every kid in the country," Larson noted. When asked what he thought of the other candidates Larson said, "John Kerry -- no American can relate to that face, it's like something out of The Simpsons."
After leaving his supporters waiting for an hour, Dean arrived at the rally site in a rental car cavalcade, and was ushered to the podium flanked by staff as camera crews went into full on paparazzi mode. Wasting no time, Dean played his greatest Bush-busting hits, starting off by mentioning that President Bush has overseen the biggest job loss since Herbert Hoover's depression-era administration. "It seems to me that instead of giving three trillion dollars of our tax money to Ken Lay and the boys that we ought to be investing in America to build schools, rebuild roads and invest in renewable energy," Dean said.
The crowd ate it up.
Dean continued to rattle on about national defense and health care, and his patented "You cannot beat George Bush by being Bush lite." But behind the cordoned off Dean rally pen, a man with a gray "Draft Wesley Clark" T-shirt looked skeptical and impatient. Dan Cordova is a regional organizer for the Draft Wesley Clark campaign. He admitted the difficulty of campaigning without a candidate, but was quick to mention that the Draft Wesley Clark movement has raised over a million dollars without Clark, a retired general and former Kosovo NATO commander, having actually declared his candidacy.
But Cordova isn't fazed, confidently stating that Clark's candidacy was imminent and that he was certainly not, as many a pundit has intimated, "running for vice president."
"I think he's taking a page from the book of Bill Clinton, who also jumped in late," Cordova said, after stating that Clark was " a thoroughbred against a bunch of mules, including Bush himself." (According to a message to his supporters delivered Monday night, Clark said he would make a decision by the end of next week.)
A miserable failure
For all the huff and puff about the populist Dean, stealing his firebrand thunder in the debate itself was none other than Democratic Party insider and Missouri congressman, Richard Gephardt. Doing everything shy of ripping off his shirt, the labor-backed candidate called the president "a miserable failure" no less than five times.
With the exception of Lieberman and Kucinich, who attacked Dean on issues of international trade, the debate focused on firing away at the current administration.
Seated in a subterranean pressroom, Gephardt's slogan was the only thing that suggested that the gaggle of laptop-bound reporters were watching something of greater significance than the Home Shopping Network.
Outside the debate, Gephardt supporters were jubilant.
"Wasn't he great? Wasn't he passionate?" remarked a glowing Albuquerque native Susan Smith.
Scott Goold, a fellow Gephardite admitted that "We kind of had thought of him as Opie Taylor, the guy you gotta like, the guy you hang out with, but is he gonna be able come out of the pack? Well, this was the Richard Gephardt we've been waiting to see."
Francesca Lobato agrees. A former New Mexico Senate candidate, she now volunteers for the Gephardt campaign. "Gephardt has the experience in Congress to really know how to maneuver if we want a health-care plan," she said, while crediting Kucinich for bringing the debate around toward issues of free trade and labor rights.
Finding the various post-debate candidate parties proved no easy task. While Kucinich greeted the flock of his faithful in a UNM student union suite, many of the candidates scattered to the airport, while others held court at a Hilton Hotel reception.
The Independent managed to fire off a question to Florida Sen. Bob Graham inquiring if he still claimed that, unlike Dean, he "represented the electable wing of the Democratic Party." The avuncular senator bellowed a resounding "yes."
While shaking hands with a host of suited up Young Democrats, Graham said that an activist base was essential. "It helps to energize the whole party and gives a base upon which you can then add what's necessary to get 270 electoral votes."
Democratic Party apparatchiks, like the Democratic Leadership Council's Al From, have chided Dean's leftward move as a recipe for an electoral disaster. As From suggested in a Wall Street Journal editorial, the question of whether a fired up liberal base is a liability or an asset is one of the more vexing questions of the Democratic race.
Of course, Dean is still only one of nine candidates and despite providing fodder for pundits and reporters, seven in 10 Americans still don't know who he is. What's more, two thirds of Democrats can't name a single candidate in the running.
As many of Dean's rivals bank on the comforting mantra of "it's still early," four months from the first primary they're not totally in denial. The same Zogby poll that trumpeted Dean's ascendancy over Kerry also noted that nearly a quarter of those polled remained undecided. With four more months of campaigning, five more debates, and the likely entrance of another viable candidate, it may not be "anybody's" race, but Dean's lockdown is hardly a done deal.
When asked why she has received so little media attention, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun replied, "Ya know, I'm the just the Seabiscuit of this campaign."
She's not the only one.