Howard Dean Broadens His Message

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MY KIND OF TOWN: Dean campaigns in Chicago

Having charged to the head of the Democratic field by sharply attacking President Bush, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean isn't letting up. Speaking to unusually large crowds on a four-day, nine-city tour last week, Dean criticized the Bush tax cuts, repeatedly saying the President had given billions to "Ken Lay and the boys" while shortchanging domestic priorities. Of the three million jobs that have been lost since Bush became president, Dean said, "Mr. President, you ought to be ashamed of yourself." And he referred to the education reform bill known as the No Child Left Behind Act as the "No School Board Left Standing" act and the "No Behind Left" act.

But while Dean keeps Bush-whacking, he has carefully retooled his stump speech over the last few weeks in order to come across less like an angry insurgent candidate and more like someone who could be president. With leads in the polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire, including a shocking 21% spread over John Kerry in one Granite State tally, Dean no longer spends much of his time attacking the other candidates for their support of Bush initiatives, including the war in Iraq. Instead, Dean is trying to shore up three weaknesses that could derail his candidacy: a lack of experience on foreign policy issues; a concern that a governor from a liberal Northeastern state won't play well in the South; and the perception that Dean isn't gaining support among minority voters.

In front of crowds of more than 1000 in San Antonio last Monday, close to 2000 the next afternoon in Chicago and at least 6,000 in New York's Bryant Park on Tuesday night, supporters cheered the loudest when Dean declared, "as most of you know, Iím the only one of the major candidates to oppose the war in Iraq." But after the applause finally died down, Dean discussed foreign policy in a more detailed way than he has before. Trying to shed his image as a liberal peacenik, Dean said he supported both the first Gulf War and the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. He said the U.S. should buy leftover stocks of uranium from the former Soviet Union to make sure they don't get into the hands of terrorists, inspect cargo shipments at ports more closely and give more money to states and cities for homeland security. He criticized Bush for not negotiating soon enough with North Korea and for being too soft on the Saudis.

For months, Dean's stump speech had focused on his health care plan, the economy and the fact that Democrats in Washington had to "stand up to the president." He still talks about all these things, but nearly a quarter of his speech is now dedicated to foreign policy issues. And Dean may be shifting gears just in time. Kerry plans to emphasize his Senate experience on foreign policy to draw a contrast between himself and Dean. And retired Gen. Wesley Clark could enter the race this month. Clark, who also opposed the war, could pull votes from Dean as an anti-war candidate with a longer foreign policy resume.

An Arkansas native, Clark may have an appeal in the South that Dean lacks. Facing questions about his ability to win the South if he was nominated, Dean said in Chicago, "How am I going to win the South? I'm going to talk about race. Iím going to tell [white] people in the South you've been voting Republican for 34 years. Tell me what to you have to show for it." Dean noted the number of people without health insurance remains high in South Carolina — which has a critical primary following New Hampshire's — and most of those people are white.

Bush won every state in the South in 2000, and all nine of the current candidates would struggle in a match-up against him there. But Dean may not have to worry about Democratic primary voters picking a Southerner because they think he can win the general election. Florida Sen. Bob Graham and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, the only two Southerners in the race, are both struggling to gain traction nationally and one or both could bow out before the nominating process heads South.

Talking about race may not win the south for Dean, but discussing issues like affirmative action could be important in appealing to minority voters nationwide. He continues to draw huge crowds and people across the country gather each month in groups organized on the Website meetup.com to support him, but his base is largely white. (This isn't solely a Dean problem, as the other candidates aren't drawing huge minority crowds either.) A few blacks and Latinos attended the events in San Antonio and Chicago, but the crowds still resembled those in Iowa or New Hampshire, the much less diverse states that hold the first primaries. The Dean campaign made the lack of diversity even more obvious by having the governor introduced by a minority at almost every campaign stop and putting a bunch of minorities behind him at each podium where he spoke. The campaign is trying to get the meetup groups to recruit more in the black and Latino communities and plans to hire a minority outreach coordinator in each key state, an effort led by Andrea Pringle, Carol Moseley Braun's campaign manager until she joined staff Dean's staff.

Dean is trying to appeal to minorities more through his speeches as well. He criticizes Bush for opposing the University of Michigan's affirmative action program, saying the President "played the race card" by describing the program as a quota. And in one his most popular new lines, Dean says "when white people and brown people and black people vote together, that's when we make social change in this country."

If pro-war Democrats, Southerners and minority voters vote together, they could probably stop the momentum of Howard Dean. But that doesn't seem likely right now. And as Dean stepped onto the stage last week in New York, a huge screen beside him showed a baseball bat, the icon used on the campaign's website where fundraising updates are posted, as Dean announced the campaign had exceeded its goal of raising $1 million on the four-day trip. If Dean can keep swinging at Bush while shoring up his weaknesses, it could be tough for the other candidates to strike him out.