White House Readies for a Dean Campaign
Both the Washington Post and the New York Times have stories this morning reporting on the White Houseís pivoting to now plan for running against Howard Dean as the Democratic nominee. In this post Gore-endorsement environment, both stories have in common the themes we already know about: whomever is the nominee, the GOP plans to run against them as a liberal taxer out of touch with the mainstream; the White House doesnít appear to be concerned yet about the issues that may stack up against them. But in both stories there is an undercurrent of respect for and concern about the Dean campaignís ability to energize the base and get new voters to come out and to give money.
As for the issues and the Bush campís ability the run on them against a Dean campaign, the Mike Allen Post piece has the following:
For the record, Bush's aides would say only that the president will offer a sharp contrast to any of the Democrats and they believe the election may be as close as it was in 2000, no matter who is nominated.
Conversations with officials throughout Bush's organization make it clear that they plan to paint the nominee, whoever it is, as a liberal, tax-raising peacenik who wants to bash Bush instead of offering positive solutions. With Dean, though, many Bush officials believe their job might be easier.
"I'd rather run against his issue profile than someone who is more moderate," said Charlie Black, a longtime adviser to Republicans. "But he's run a great campaign and has a lot of smart people around him."
Rich Bond, a Republican consultant and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said that as Dean seeks to broaden his appeal, he will have a hard time pleasing the followers who were animated by his antiwar stance, or dispelling early impressions about his loose tongue. "He's an angry white guy -- the media has made up its mind about this guy," Bond said. "Even if he tries to get back in the middle, his activist supporters won't let him."
Dean remains a dream candidate for many Republicans. "Can you imagine a convention to nominate Howard Dean?" asked a GOP lobbyist. "It would be a festival of labor and universal health care, a liberal celebration beamed into living rooms all over the South and Midwest."
No senior Republican acknowledged fearing that Dean would end up beating Bush. But these officials are banking on vast improvements in the situation in Iraq and in the job market.
But the White House is also growingly concerned about Deanís plusses.
"He has the biggest potential to go down in flames, but he also has a certain wild-card potential," said former Minnesota Republican representative Vin Weber.
Among the factors that most worry them, Bush officials said, is Dean's ability to attract young voters and others who have not voted before. Some of the officials said they also are given pause by Dean's similarities to their boss: a polarizing figure who has a temper and deep appeal to his core supporters.
"We believe this is going to be an election about our two bases, and therefore Dean's ability to excite his base means that he's a formidable candidate," a well-known Republican said after discussing the issue with Bush's top strategists. "This is an evolution in the thinking. So much for uniting and all that stuff."
More and more Republicans in the administration and elsewhere, however, are urging fellow party members to quit talking about a cakewalk or a blowout. Robert T. Bennett, chairman of the Ohio GOP, was one of several veteran party officials who said they are having flashbacks to 1992, when they all assured themselves that little-known Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was no match for Bush's father. "Everybody told me that Clinton came from a third-rate state with a budget smaller than Wal-Mart's and that he didn't need to worry about him," Bennett said. "I think we still call him Mr. President."
Richard Stevensonís Times piece today plows some of the same ground. On the issues, the piece had some of the same themes as the Post piece:
Throughout the year, many Republicans have been longing for a Bush-Dean matchup, saying Dr. Dean's opposition to the war with Iraq, his call for rolling back Mr. Bush's tax cuts and his support for civil unions between gay people would open the door to a Republican landslide in November.
But again, the same level of concern seeped into the story:
Still, Dr. Dean's ability to energize Democrats and potentially attract new voters, while raising large sums of money without the benefit of an established national reputation, has generated some concern within the Bush campaign, where much of the early betting had been on Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri as the most likely nominee. The campaign continues to warn against overconfidence among its supporters by stressing that the 2004 race could be as close as the one in 2000.
"They do not underestimate Dean, because Dean is able to stir the energy in the Democratic party grass roots," said Deal W. Hudson, the editor of Crisis Magazine and an influential religious conservative who is in regular contact with the White House. "That makes him potentially the most formidable of the Democratic nominees."
"There is a broad belief among the president's political advisers at the White House and the campaign, from top to bottom, from Cheney to Mehlman to Karl and Andy and all the other players, that Dean is very likely, extremely likely, to be the candidate," said one Republican strategist who works closely with the White House. He was referring to Vice President Dick Cheney; Ken Mehlman, Mr. Bush's campaign manager; Mr. Rove; and Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff.
The Bush campaign's official line remains that whichever Democrat emerges victorious from the primaries will be a formidable candidate if only because the nation is so closely and passionately divided politically.
Base against base is what the White House is planning for next year, and a closely-divided country. What is clear is that we can expect the saturation bombing of a negative TV campaign to begin right after the SOTU address, according to the Times.
But the clear message in both pieces is that the White House is totally unconcerned with running on the issues as they see them. The do not think that Iraq will be a problem for them, and they think they can spin the tax issue to their benefit. These may be the real weaknesses in Rove's strategy.