DIGGING HIMSELF A DEEPER HOLE
"Great, but ..." -- that was the response from a Howie Dean New Hampshire staffer, when discussing the capture Sunday of Saddam Hussein. "I'm glad we have him, but what about bin Laden? He's more dangerous and has been out there longer than Saddam. And what about the WMD? Now that we have Hussein, they can't cover up that lie."
The conversation revealed the direction the Dean camp will now take, since the Hussein capture takes a talking point off the table. "You don't have to be a high paid consultant or talking head to figure out where they were going," says a Bush staffer. "We're ready for all of this. The fact is a lot Americans are safer today than they were 48 hours ago."
Dean's camp isn't so sure. Quietly, using contacts of advisers and long-time supporters who have friends or family members in the military, the Dean campaign has been looking for Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans willing to blast the Bush Administration on the record, and even speak publicly in Boston at the Democratic National Convention.
"We know Bush and his people are going to politicize 9/11 in New York at their convention," says the Dean staffer. "Why can't we have everyday Americans speak their mind about their concerns at our convention?"
The Dean campaign strategy seems to be to focus on whatever it can grasp at that will resonate with its base and energize it for the short-term. "Right now, it's all about just getting by another day and keeping our momentum so Kerry and Gephardt can't get a toe-hold," says the Dean staffer.
The concern is currently less about John Kerry than about Dick Gephardt. While Gephardt remains competitive in the polls in Iowa, Dean and his people remain concerned that Gephardt's organization will actually beat them in that state, where the former House minority leader was thought to have the edge all along.
Dean has some experienced hands on deck, but Gephardt's team knows Iowa and the caucus system better than any other campaign does. Given the nature of the caucus system that knowledge and know-how can beat a poll.
"We're counting on that. It's our only edge right now," says a Gephardt staffer in Washington. "We're banking on Dean's folks just not having the organization that we have in Iowa. That is what matters, not money, not TV time. It's organization and getting out the vote. We have that, and they don't"
Should Gephardt best Dean in Iowa, there are many in both Republican and Democratic circles who believe the race for the Democratic nomination will become a two-man race. While Dean appears assured of a strong showing in New Hampshire, much of the Democratic focus has been on South Carolina. Sen. John Edwards appeared to bank his entire campaign's future on that state of his birth. Gephardt, trailing badly in New Hampshire, appears to have banked on it as well. He has recently pulled in important in-state endorsements, and is poised to poll in the top three there. That would appear to be all he needs to carry himself deep into primary season, and would force his friends at the AFL-CIO to balk at an early endorsement of Dean, something Gephardt is desperate to avoid.
GOING AFTER THE BIG FISH
Now that Howie Dean has Al Gore's endorsement, he's looking for Bill Clinton's. On the same day that he was appearing in Iowa with the former vice president, Dean was calling the former president for a chat.
"It wasn't about anything," says a Dean staffer in Iowa. "Governor Dean spoke quite a bit to Mr. Gore. He speaks quite a bit to President Clinton."
One of Dean's favorite pastimes on the road is calling political figures on a cell phone, then passing the phone around to people to surprise them about who is on the other end. He also enjoys calling people out of the blue just to let them know he's tracking them. One story goes that a prominent union boss was flying in Iowa with Sen. John Kerry when his cell phone rang. It was Dean, just calling to say hi.
Dean wants Clinton's support, but the ex-prez thus far has been cool to the approach.
Gen. Wesley Clark very publicly admitted last week that after the Gore endorsement, he called Clinton to make sure that his old chum wasn't thinking of doing anything rash. Clinton, according to a Clark insider, told the neophyte candidate that he had no intention of following in Gore's footsteps.