If Howard Dean Were the Candidate ...

  • Political punditry is harder than it looks. That's what a lot of Democratic voters must be thinking right about now. Last winter Democratic-primary voters played political consultant. They tried to step inside the minds of swing voters and figure out which Democratic presidential candidate could beat George W. Bush. With an eye cast coldly on November, they rejected the man who had first won their hearts, Howard Dean, and flocked to the more "electable" choice, John Kerry. Among New Hampshire voters who said beating Bush was their biggest concern, Kerry beat Dean by a whopping 52 points.

    Democratic voters should stick to their day jobs. With just five weeks until Election Day, there's reason to believe they guessed wrong — that Dean would be doing better against Bush than Kerry is. Yes, it's too late for Democrats to switch horses, but imagining how Dean might have done sheds light on what's going on now. Here's the logic:

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    Americans are upset about Iraq. Less than half of voters approve of Bush's handling of the war or say that it is going well or that it has made America safer. This frustration gives Democrats the national-security opportunity they've been waiting for. But so far, Kerry has blown it. By voting to authorize war, then criticizing it in the Democratic primaries, then saying he would have voted yes again — even if he had known that Saddam didn't have weapons of mass destruction — he has made his Iraq contortions, rather than the war itself, the issue. Even last week, as Kerry stepped up his attacks, Bush continued to evade them with one devastating word: flip-flop.

    If Dean were the nominee, flip-flops wouldn't be the issue; Iraq would. The former Vermont Governor opposed the war from the start, and his rationale was as simple as Kerry's was convoluted: Saddam was not a threat. Of course, Dean would have had other general-election vulnerabilities. Republicans would have branded him the second coming of peacenik George McGovern. But Dean could have retorted that he (unlike Kerry) backed the first Gulf War. They would have ridiculed his lack of foreign policy experience. But there's an advantage to not having 20 years of Senate votes to defend, as Kerry has learned. (That's part of the reason Governors usually make stronger presidential candidates than Senators.)

    Then there's Vietnam. In the primaries many of those Democratic voter-pundits figured Kerry's heroic service would reassure general-election voters that he was tough enough to lead the country after 9/11. But at best, Vietnam has proved a wash. After weeks of G.O.P.-orchestrated attacks on Kerry's war record, the Los Angeles Times in late August asked registered voters how his Vietnam service affected their vote. Twenty-three percent said it made them more likely to support Kerry, 21% said it made them less likely, and 53% said it had no effect.

    And in a subtler way, Dean's lack of a war record might have actually helped him. For the Kerry campaign, Vietnam has been a crutch, an all-purpose response to any foreign policy attack. Partly as a result, Kerry's team didn't use the Democratic Convention to develop a compelling national-security message, a mistake it is frantically trying to remedy now. Dean, because he couldn't talk about Vietnam, might have focused on other things — like Bush's failure to get tough with the Saudis or fund homeland security — that Americans care more about than whether Lieutenant Kerry deserved his Bronze Star.

    Dean would have one more, less tangible advantage: he doesn't sound like a politician. One reason the flip-flop charge has stuck is that Kerry, with his meandering, caveat-filled speaking style, often seems like a guy trying to avoid a straight answer. Sensing that vulnerability, Republicans have run the same playbook they ran against Al Gore: portraying Kerry's personality deficiencies as deficiencies of character. As a result, while Kerry leads Bush on most domestic issues, voters turn sour when asked about Kerry the man. In last week's TIME poll, Kerry's biggest deficit versus Bush was in "sticking to his positions." Only 37% of registered voters in the survey said Kerry does that, compared with 84% for Bush.

    Dean wouldn't have that problem. Polls in Iowa showed him doing best among voters who value a candidate who "takes strong stands." It's true that Dean's passion exploded the night he lost Iowa — into a scream heard around the world. But it was the flip side of the spontaneity that made him seem authentic, a straight shooter. With his blunt, no-nonsense style, Dean actually evoked — more than any of his Democratic rivals — President Bush.

    Were Dean the nominee, the Bush campaign would probably be going after him not as a flip-flopper but as a lefty. Lefty isn't exactly a term of endearment. But at least it evokes issues rather than character. Character debates sank Al Gore and threaten to sink John Kerry now. A debate about issues, on the other hand — especially the biggest issue of all, Iraq — is something Democrats could win.