Washington Prowler

Dean Is in the Details

Howie’s new focus on religion. Plus: Gore fails to deliver.

By 12.29.03

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FOCUS ON RELIGION
Former Vermont governor and Democratic party presidential candidate Howie Dean apparently isn't sure about his religion, but he is showing new found faith in a higher being and focus groups.

On the eve of the Christmas holidays, Dean went public with thoughts about God -- he believes in Him. While the Lord is probably relieved that the Episcopalian turned Congregationalist-almost-a-Unitarian believes in Him, Dean's pandering had more to do with strengthening his position in the South after focus groups pulled together by his campaign revealed discomfort with a man of little faith.

"[Dean's] stump speeches weren't working with the groups," says a Washington-based Democratic Party consultant familiar with the focus group study that took place in early December. "When asked, they wanted to have a sense that the candidate shared their values, and in the South that means a candidate who believes in God, the Bible and the family."

Dean told the Boston Globe that he believed in God, and respected the role of religion in America, this despite his regular attacks on Republican Christians and applause lines built around a call for a more explicit separation of church and state in this country. Dean claimed that he didn't talk about his personal religious beliefs because his father -- a practicing Episcopalian -- didn't think a person's faith needed to be discussed.

Dean was christened in the Episcopal Church, then fell away. He was married in a civil service, and has said he and his wife, who is Jewish, mulled becoming Unitarians when neither would agree to convert to the other's religion. Dean, who admits to rarely attending religious services of any kind unless it is for electoral purposes, now claims to be a Congregationalist after a falling out with Episcopalians over the planned construction of a bike path near a church.

"Does he know how ridiculous that sounds when he talks about it?" says a staffer for Sen. Joseph Lieberman. "You leave a church over doubts about your faith, or doctrine. You leave a church over gay ministers, not a recreational roadway."

Whatever his faith, Dean clearly is uncomfortable talking about religion, and when he does he reveals a superficial understanding that probably won't take him far in the Bible Belt. For example, this quote from his Globe interview: "Christ was someone who sought out people who were disenfranchised, people who were left behind. He fought against self-righteousness of people who had everything.… He was a person who set an extraordinary example that has lasted 2000 years, which is pretty inspiring when you think about it."

Pretty inspiring indeed.

It is no coincidence that Dean's religious epiphany came as polls in South Carolina showed him pulling away from the pack of Democrats competing in that state. A Dean victory here might seal the fate of Sen. John Edwards and possibly Rep. Dick Gephardt both of whom have in recent weeks focused their attention on the first Southern primary to save their listing political futures.

"For Dean to make serious inroads down South, we have to make him a man of faith," says a Dean adviser in Washington. "The fact that he hasn't seemed to care about religion actually is working in our favor. There isn't much anyone can call him on. And let's face it, anyone who does call him on a lack of faith looks petty and judgmental and that's not good."

To be fair to Dean, other candidates like Sen. John Kerry and Gephardt haven't spoken widely about their religious beliefs either. But neither is the frontrunner. Dean is now said by some associates to be boning up on religious matters through a series of talking points and several books from a reading list prepared by his staff. The Bible was not on the suggested reading list. Perhaps it should be.

SHOW ME THE MONEY
While Al Gore may be in former Vermont governor Howie Dean's camp, his chief fundraiser isn't, and that has Dean campaign staffers hopping mad.

Later this week, former Gore 2000 Finance Committee chairman Johnny Hayes will endorse retired general Wesley Clark in Nashville. Hayes may make the announcement with other Tennessee political players, though plans have not been fully developed, according to a Clark staffer in New Hampshire.

Hayes had been in talks with a number of campaigns, including Dean's, as well as Sen. Joseph Lieberman's and Sen. John Kerry's.

According to a Dean staffer in New Hampshire, Gore had indicated to the candidate that Hayes was someone who would probably support the candidate he endorsed, bringing with him fundraising muscle throughout the South.

But Hayes was never receptive to Dean's advances, and apparently did not speak to Gore about his decision to go with Clark, who is being handled by a number of former Clinton-Gore campaign and administration hands.

"It was a comfort thing," says the Clark staffer. "Hayes didn't like Dean's beating up on Bill Clinton. Hayes is a party guy, and Dean is not a party guy."

Hayes jumping to Clark is embarrassing for Gore, particularly given the sinking poll numbers Clark has been seeing in the past month or so. He is no longer a frontrunner in South Carolina, and appears to be losing ground to Rep. Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman in other Southern states.

"It's mystifying to many of us that Gore can't bring more talent to the campaign," says a Dean staffer in New Hampshire. "We're just not seeing what he brings to the table beyond people from MoveOn.org and the like, and those people were already largely supporting us. When we lose out on guys like Hayes, it reinforces the notion that this campaign can only energize the far-left base and not attract the centrist or conservative wings of the party."

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