The Frontrunner as Underdog

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While most of the American political universe spent the week focused on Howard Dean’s ill-advised comments on guys in pickups with confederate flags — Dean was making one of the most pivotal decisions of his run for the White House: He has decided to forgo federal matching funds and the spending limits that come with them. Dean knows his fundraising efforts, which have raised well over $25 million so far, can raise much more than the $45 million he’d be limited to spending between now and next summer’s convention. Since President Bush has already opted out of the system and raised over $85 million, Dean feels he can’t risk abiding by the limits, spend $45 million in the primaries and end up penniless between April and July. It’s a political no-brainer. So why is Dean asking his supporters to vote on whether he should opt out, rather than just deciding on his own and calling a press conference? The answer may have more to do with what is rapidly becoming the Dean Dilemma: How do you remain the insurgent underdog when you’re the obvious frontrunner?

Dean’s little plebiscite, undoubtedly the first time a candidate has asked for an online vote on campaign strategy, works like this: His 600,000 registered supporters received either an email or phone call asking for their decision on whether he should opt out of the matching bucks. Ballots went out Thursday, supporters get to vote through Friday night, Dean announces the results on Saturday. The Doctor made it clear where he stood when he announced the vote Wednesday: Accepting the funds, he told supporters in New York, “will cap our spending at $45 million, giving the Bush campaign a spending advantage of $170 million, which they will use to define and distort us from March to August.”

There is no good reason for Dean to accept the limits. While he probably won’t match Bush’s likely $200 million warchest, he can raise a lot more than $45 million if he keeps up his current pace. And even the biggest advocates of campaign finance reform are giving him a pass on this issue. Watchdog Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 said he couldn’t blame Dean because of Bush’s decision to opt out. While Dean’s opponents accused him of hypocrisy, most admitted privately they wish they had the same luxury. Campaign advisors for John Kerry and Wes Clark have said they may opt out if they raise enough.

So why even bother to have a vote? Because Dean is trying to be remain the underdog, even as he becomes the frontrunner. He has the money advantage. The latest polls show him ahead in New Hampshire and tied with Gephardt in Iowa. And two of the biggest unions in America, the SEIU and AFCSME, are poised to endorse him, which will help kill the impression that only rich Northeastern liberals support him and put a stake in the heart of Dick Gephardt, the old liberal guard’s best hope of derailing Dean.

The Vermonter got to where he is today by being a rebel, a straight talker. He revolutionized campaigning online, reaching new voters through blogs and meetup groups. Union endorsements and campaign coffers stuffed to the brim don’t fit the image. The last thing he wants to do is turn off his most loyal supporters by letting them think he’s just another politician. So instead of holding a focus group to find out whether his fans will stomach his opting out of federal financing, he’s taking the question directly to the masses. As John McCain’s 2000 strategist Mike Murphy told the Washington Post, “Dean is trying to combine McCain’s insurgent appeal with Bush's huge resource advantage. It makes him very formidable.” If the reaction on his blog is any indication, his supporters are going to vote for the extra cash. Most of them appear to see it as a chance to fight the good fight against Bush.

If Dean continues to lead the pack into the primaries, look for him to continue his insurgent strategy. But he does need to be careful. His rebellious straight talk sometimes leads to off the cuff comments that come back to haunt him — like the stars-and-bars flub. Dean isn’t a racist, but the comment shows he can get himself in trouble by speaking faster than he thinks. That same tendency sank McCain’s hopes in 2000 when he decided to attack Jerry Falwell and the Christian right. George W. Bush proved in those primaries that he is a disciplined campaigner, and while Dean’s primary opponents haven’t been able to strike mortal wounds with Dean’s missteps so far, Bush won’t miss such opportunities.