Operation February

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CALLIE SHELL/AURORA FOR TIME

TIME OUT: Dean, in Iowa, catches up with press clips between events

Just about the last thing you'd expect a presidential candidate to do is ask his supporters to give money to another politician — especially one who hasn't endorsed him. So when Howard Dean quietly made that offer to Tim Bishop earlier this fall, the New York Congressman couldn't quite figure out what to make of it. Bishop turned him down, noting that he planned to throw his support behind Senator John Kerry. But Iowa's Leonard Boswell — who is uncommitted in the presidential race and expects to remain so — had no such qualms when Dean came to him with the same deal a few weeks ago. He hastily retooled his website so he could accept contributions over the Internet. Within 24 hours of the Dean campaign's sending out an email appeal on Boswell's behalf last week, a total of $51,557 poured in from 1,359 Deaniacs across the country, most of whom had probably never heard of Boswell before.

It was an audacious move and a smart one too — and not just because it gave Dean a chance to do a big favor for the only Democratic Congressman from a state whose Jan. 19 caucuses are looking more crucial than ever in the fight for the nomination. By siphoning off some of his money supply to Boswell, Dean was sending a signal to the Democratic Party establishment on Capitol Hill — especially Southern Democrats — which may have some misgivings about the prospect of a presidential ticket headed by an antiwar nominee from the liberal Northeast. The meaning was clear: My rising tide can lift your boat too. Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi, says the former Governor is considering making similar share-the-wealth offers to dozens of other Democratic lawmakers and candidates. To those Democrats who might be thinking of starting an Anyone-but-Dean movement, Dean is sending a none-too-subtle message: You need me as much as I need you. And maybe more.

Call it confidence, or perhaps bravado, but Dean is unrolling a new pedal-to-the-metal national strategy this week. As vital as Iowa and New Hampshire are in this front-loaded primary season, the campaign is already looking past those two contests. It bought 30 minutes of time after the Green Bay Packers game on Sunday to air a half-hour television program about Dean on the local Fox affiliate in Madison, Wis.--a state that does not hold its primary until Feb. 17, almost three weeks after New Hampshire's vote on Jan. 27. The campaign plans a multimillion-dollar advertising blitz in South Carolina, New Mexico, Arizona and Oklahoma that will start this week and continue until those states hold their contests on Feb. 3. "Let's see who has the resources now to follow us," Trippi says. On a five-city swing through Iowa on Friday, Dean touted not a local poll but a Florida one showing him running only 8% behind Bush, despite the fact that he hasn't spent much time in the state. "It kind of puts the lie to the electability argument," he told reporters later.

If Dean is already beginning to view the race as a contest between himself and George W. Bush, it looks as if the Republicans are too. The conservative organization Club for Growth last week bought $100,000 worth of airtime in New Hampshire and Iowa for ads that compare Dean to George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis and claim that the former Vermont Governor would raise the average family's taxes more than $1,900 a year. Dean's campaign counterattacked almost immediately with an ad featuring a picture of Bush above a closed factory and touting Dean as a fiscal conservative.

The farther and faster he runs, however, the harder it is for Dean to avoid tripping up. He had shrugged off criticism that had simmered for months over his decision to seal nearly half his gubernatorial records for more than a decade, and it caught him off-balance when it finally boiled over. Confronted again on Good Morning America last week, the candidate who prides himself on talking straight testily attempted to turn the question on Bush, saying "I'll unseal mine if he'll unseal all of his." The problem was, Bush's records as Governor of Texas have been opened to the public, despite Bush's initial attempt to transfer them to his father's presidential library. So instead of quieting his critics, Dean emboldened them. By the end of the week, newspaper editorials were piling up, and Dean was saying he would explore ways of making some of his records available.

Dean's rivals were not so much looking to derail him as to become the consensus alternative. Two polls last week showed Dean opening up an all-but-insurmountable lead of 30 points over Kerry in New Hampshire, a state that the Massachusetts Senator once seemed to have a lock on. More bad news for Kerry was the fact that retired General Wesley Clark was running just a few points behind him in New Hampshire, fueling speculation that Clark has a shot at coming in second.

In the meantime, Iowa was still looking like ground zero — especially for Dean and Congressman Dick Gephardt. Though Dean may have opened a multifront war, he still aims to win the first critical battle. Only seven weeks ago, after Clark and Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman announced they weren't going to compete in Iowa, there was speculation that the contest would lose some of its significance. But today, thanks to the fact that Dean is pushing hard for a victory there, Iowa's importance has been ratcheted up. It's become a dogfight between Dean and Gephardt, who won the state in 1988 and now seems to practically reside there. "Howard's strategy is to knock me out in Iowa and knock Kerry out in New Hampshire," says Gephardt. "If that happens, it's over."

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