Posted on December 15, 2003 in Washington Watch

Former Vice President Al Gore’s endorsement of Howard Dean for president dominated U.S. political news coverage for three days. While some major newspapers, and most of Dean’s Democratic opponents, sought to dismiss the importance of this move, the endorsement was significant.

Here is what it has done:

By giving Dean three days of front-page news, the Gore endorsement has elevated his national visibility, name recognition and stature.

While Dean began his campaign as the insurgent “outsider” candidate, a combination of issues (principally his opposition to the Iraq war) and his grass roots campaign mobilization (ingeniously driven by the internet) have propelled him into the lead in Iowa and New Hampshire, the early states in the Democratic primary elections. This has also given Dean a substantial lead in fundraising over the other eight Democrats in the race for the Democratic nomination to run against George W. Bush in November 2004.

Even with this, however, some in the Democratic Party’s establishment have remained uncomfortable with Dean, much as they were with the prospect of a Carter candidacy in 1976. Dean, therefore, remained an “outsider”, while some party leaders continued to hope that a more mainstream “insider” or “un-Dean” candidate would emerge from the field of nine.

The campaign is still in its early stages and because most Americans have not yet begun to focus on the contest, Dean’s lead, though substantial in New Hampshire (where voters are paying attention), is still quite slim in national polls. This gave some Democrats hope that the race was still wide open.

The Gore endorsement and its attendant news coverage will change that. The support of the Democrat’s 2000 candidate gives Dean the respect his supporters feel he rightly deserves. Dean’s frontrunner status is now firmly established. And the huge national press coverage generated by Gore’s move will add to Dean’s national standing and provide his candidacy with a boost in the polls as well. This, in turn, will further spur Dean’s fundraising efforts fueling his campaign for the long road ahead. Within 24 hours of the Gore endorsement, Dean’s campaign reported having raised $500,000 via the internet.

The Al Gore who endorsed Howard Dean is the “new and improved” Al Gore who first appeared before the nation in the weeks that followed the November 2000 election debacle. He had been freed from the shackles that often made him appear to be overly cautious or stiff. He was a fighter and a more passionate campaigner. And as the courts decided the fate of the 2000 election, many Democrats, including those who had only given Gore lukewarm support, became drawn to him as their standard bearer. Until today, most believe, in their hearts, that Gore won the 2000 contest and was unfairly denied the presidency.

Since 2000, Gore has made only a few political appearances. In September of 2002 he delivered a rousing speech severely critical of the Bush Administration’s march to war. More recently, in November, this fighting Al Gore reappeared to deliver a stinging indictment of the Administration’s domestic war on terror, which he said was eroding civil liberties and basic freedoms. This was the same fighting spirit that Gore brought to the Dean endorsement.

With Gore at his side, Dean reignites the smoldering Democratic anger over the outcome of the 2000 contest. This plays perfectly into what has appeared to be Dean’s overall 2004 strategy. Since his first major appearance before national Democratic leaders in February of 2003, when he challenged the party to return to its principles, Dean has sought to activate and energize the Democratic base.

Recent elections have seen the candidates of both parties attempt to push to the center of the political spectrum. However, believing that the U.S. in 2004 will be as evenly divided as it was in the 2000 elections, both Dean and the current White House strategists have appeared to focus their efforts more on mobilizing their respective parties’ faithful.

Like Gore, Dean criticizes the unilateralist military engagement in Iraq. Like Gore, Dean also criticizes what he describes as the Bush Administration’s heavy-handed disregard for constitutionally protected civil liberties. And, like Gore, Dean has been a sharp critic of the President’s tax cuts and the resultant deficit in the federal budget.

Basing his campaign on the Democrats’ anger over these Bush Administration policies, Dean was propelled into the lead of the field of nine. Now with Gore’s endorsement, Dean’s issue-based agenda has been validated.

But the contest is by no means over. The attacks on Dean will now sharpen. And they will come from two directions. Some of his Democratic opponents will charge that Dean is not to be trusted as the standard bearer of the party’s core principles. They will charge that Dean has, in the past, been inconsistent–that he is more conservative than he now appears to be. On the other hand, attacks will come from those who fear that Dean is too liberal and that Democrats will lose if they nominate a candidate who fails to appeal to more moderate and centrists voters. Dean’s strategy, they argue, may win him the Democratic nomination by arousing the passions of core Democratic voters. But, they ask, can Dean win in November if he cedes, as they fear he might, what they define as the middle ground, to President Bush?

Adherents of the first view have been drawn to the campaigns of Congressman Dick Gephardt and, to some degree, Senator John Kerry. Those who are looking for a more moderate alternative have championed the candidacies of Senators Joseph Lieberman and John Edwards and former General Wesley Clark.

The problem for Dean’s opponents is that the field is too large and that none of these candidates have been able to gain sufficient traction to eclipse Dean’s momentum. Gephardt is struggling in Iowa and Kerry appears to be fading in New Hampshire. Edwards and Clark both began their campaigns with great promise. While showing recent signs of strength in some of the southern states, both have a long way to go.

Much can happen in the next month before the first votes are cast. Dean can slip up (although he has deftly managed to rebound from past glitches). Or other major endorsements for one of Dean’s opponents may shift momentum in a different direction. If Gephardt’s union support can pull him back into the lead in Iowa, if Kerry can regain lost ground in New Hampshire or if Edwards or Clark catch fire and win in the south, or if…

But for now, after the Gore endorsement and the momentum it has created, despite the concerns of some Democrats, this election appears to be moving in Dean’s direction.

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