While the other candidates are defining themselves by their opponents within the party (“I’m more electable than Howard Dean” “I’m stronger on defense than Gephardt” “I can raise more money than Lieberman” “I’m the only Democrat who fought in Viet Nam”), Governor Dean has made clear that his opposition isn’t his fellow Democrats: it’s President Bush.
Anyone doubting that this is a deliberate step need only look at two indicators: the fundraising challenge from last week (where the campaign challenged supporters to out-raise the Cheney fundraiser held on Monday) and the new ad airing in Texas (which, coincidentally, was funded from money raised in that challenge).
The impact of this shift remains to be seen: but my guess is that it will only further frustrate the rest of the Democratic field who’ve tried (largely in vain in the past few months) to pick a fight with the Governor. Trippi will continue to respond to attacks (he handled himself well on CNBC’s Capital Watch last week, where former Clinton pollster Penn — who’s now running numbers for Lieberman — repeatedly lobbed distoritions Trippi’s way) while Dean will stay focused on the only opponent who matters: Bush.
I was talking to a friend of mine on Friday. He’s a soldier who recently returned from Baghdad. He was a Bush supporter going into the war; now he’s furious with the way the war’s aftermath has been handled. “Bring ‘em on” was simply the last straw. Countless times over the last few weeks I’ve been stopped in airports by people who have noticed the Dean button on my briefcase. “Who is he?” they ask. “He’s running for president.” Most then follow up with a look of relief and ask, simply: “Is he standing up against Bush?” When I say yes, they grin.
This isn’t just about disliking Bush. It’s about providing a clear, articulate alternative to Bush. As John McCain proved in 2000, people like hearing straight talk. And Dean’s ability to articulate a message that is in opposition to the distortions coming out of the Bush administration will be what fuels his run. The cover stories this week ask if Dean has peaked too early.
Not even close: there are millions of people who voted against Bush in 2000 who don’t even know that Dean’s out there yet. When they find him, they won’t let go.