The man from Vermont

THE CANDIDATE from Vermont is keen on running for President but his colleagues in the nomination race are equally keen on getting rid of the physician-turned-politician; and the money bags are watching apprehensively as the Democratic race unfolds in all its fury. To say that Howard Dean has sewn up the Democratic Party nomination would be an over-statement; but so would it be to argue that he will be submissive to the party establishment.

At 54, Dr. Dean, who has been the Governor of Vermont for 11 years, has rattled his colleagues vying for the party nomination to the extent that the hitherto frontrunner, John Kerry of Massachusetts, had to "formally" announce this week that he was seeking to enter the White House — a fact known for over a year now. Following in Mr. Kerry's footsteps will be a few others such as the former Senator from Illinois, Carol Mosley Braun, an African-American, who has been endorsed by two large women's organisations. "Formal" announcements bring with them the media coverage which candidates like Mr. Kerry believe will jump-start their sagging campaigns.

At the national level — and even in the States with early primaries and caucuses — the candidacy of others such as Senators John Edwards and Bob Graham and Congressman Dennis Kucinich has not caught on. The same goes for the Rev. Al Sharpton who has not made any significant strides even though he could be a factor in the South Carolina primary, a State with a large African- American population.

The "tenth" in the Democratic pack is General Wesley Clark who has shown signs of interest but has not formally entered the fray. Some feel he may already be late, especially in a fundraising framework; and all that is left for him to do is position himself for the number two slot if the frontrunner offers it to him formally next September.

With five months to go for the critical caucuses and primaries of Iowa and New Hampshire, Dr. Dean is sitting pretty. A latest survey shows that if the Iowa caucus were to be held today, the Vermonter would be tied for first place, at least; and in New England, he leads Mr. Kerry by 21 percentage points. Many in the Democratic Party see candidates other than Dr. Dean as being unattractive, with old and worn-out messages.

Some political analysts believe that by the third week of January 2004, when Iowa and New Hampshire are out of the way, close to five candidates aspiring for the Democratic Party nomination will have closed shop. Perhaps only three will remain in the fray, Dr. Dean, Mr. Kerry and Richard Gephardt, says a survey.

If the Democrats are terrified at the sudden swing in favour of Dr. Dean, it is because of at least two reasons. First, the inside-the-beltway politicians are being challenged by an outsider; and second, the prospect of pitting Dr. Dean against George W. Bush can give the Republicans the chance to go to town over an "ultra liberal" trying to undo everything America stands for. If the label of an "ultra liberal" rattles many Democrats, a candidate such as Senator Joseph Lieberman is also being looked at warily — he is seen as a Conservative Democrat, not falling in the mainstream of the Party.

Dr. Dean, however, does not seem to be losing much sleep over being called an "ultra liberal" or far to the left of centre. In fact, he seems to relish that he stands apart from his colleagues within the party on almost all domestic and foreign policy issues.

Unlike Mr. Kerry, Mr. Lieberman and Mr. Gephardt, Dr. Dean did not back the war in Iraq; and if the so-called frontrunners are qualifying their positions now, the former Governor of Vermont has no apology or after-thought. Even in the run-up to the conflict in Iraq, Dr. Dean took the position that the President had not made a "case" for war; and was generally critical of a foreign policy that had been based in part on "humiliating our friends."

Some others in the Democratic Party are tempted to equate Dr. Dean's anti-Iraq stance with being anti-military, a notion that is immediately brushed aside by the candidate who insists that he is not a dove. "Nobody can run for President without being willing to use the full and maximum power of the United States. But I'm one President who would be very careful if I had the opportunity," he said in an interview. Hence the notion that Dr. Dean will somehow get rid of the Pentagon on becoming President is plain ridiculous.

The label of a "liberal" is not entirely justified when it comes to economic and fiscal management where, as Governor, he consistently balanced the budget. "If balancing the budget means I'm too liberal, then call me liberal," he says. But where Dr. Dean will face intense scrutiny is in the realm of social views — he initialled legislation in his State permitting same sex civil unions.

While some in the Democratic Party are convinced that Dr. Dean is big trouble down the line, he is keen on attracting people of various hues. What is being pointed out is that some of the biggest hitters in the Party have started noticing Dr. Dean. "We've got to bring new people into the electoral process. We're going to say that to the people of Ralph Nader... people who voted for John McCain and Ross Perot... and that's the beginning of the coalition that I think can change the occupancy of the White House," says Dr. Dean. — S.K.

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