By Ciro Scotti Howard Dean is testy. Doesn't play well with others. Has a chip of Vermont granite on the shoulder of his buttoned-down shirt. Is too negative. Acts like an angry short guy. Doesn't have the temperament to be President.
That's the rap that Republicans and, more viciously, Stop-Dean Democrats want to pin on Dr. Populist. Trying to peg him as an opponent of Medicare fell flat. And efforts to tar him as insensitive at best and racist at worst for suggesting that the Democratic Party reach out to poor white Southerners who fly the Confederate flag doesn't seem to have changed many minds. In fact, it may have backfired among the pickup-truck bubbas and rebel-yellers who recognize that someone besides Republicans might actually be paying attention to them.
What's behind the animus toward Dean among fellow Democratic candidates and the party Establishment? Front-runner status makes anyone fair game for the pack of contenders, but for some of Dean's rivals, it's more personal than that.
GRUDGE MATCHES. Take Al Sharpton, the often-witty race-baiter who, incredibly, is treated with deference and taken seriously despite his role in the 1987 Tawana Brawley affair, when he championed fabricated charges leveled against five law enforcement officials by a 15-year-old girl. Sharpton had the audacity to lambaste Dean over the Confederate flag comment, which he had been repeating in one form or another for six months.
A cynic might suggest that Sharpton's attack had as much to do with Dean being endorsed by Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. -- and spoken of in glowing terms by the lawmaker's father, Reverend Jesse Jackson -- than it did with so-called insensitivity.
Union-label candidate Dick Gephardt, who has gone after Dean with a vengeance, has even more reasons to be steamed. Dean, the patrician whose grandmother asked George W. Bush's grandmother to be a bridesmaid at her wedding, snatched the endorsement of two of the country's biggest unions out from under the nose of Gephardt, the man whose father drove a milk truck.
And John Kerry, who thought New Hampshire would be his for the taking, finds himself eating Dean's dust there. In fact, a new poll conducted for The Boston Herald shows Dean ahead of Kerry in the senator's home state of Massachusetts.
PARTY DIVISIONS. Still, much more is behind the Stop-Dean Democrats than heat-of-battle hard feelings. The unofficial board of directors of Democrats Inc. -- the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, Democratic Leadership Council chief Al From, and katzenjammer consultant James Carville -- is probably almost as eager to see Dean defeated as the Bushies. For if, over the next 11 grueling months, Dean manages to win the nomination and convince America that he should be President, the Clinton mafia will lose control of the party and possibly the election of 2008.
The war within the party, a Democratic national operative mused recently, runs even deeper than that. The bad feelings toward Dean, he suggested, stem from a 23-year rift that has never healed. In the 1980 campaign, Senator Teddy Kennedy challenged a badly damaged President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination. Dean was a Carter guy. Kerry and Bill Clinton, who as President made no bones about his contempt for Carter, were Kennedy men. Neither side has gotten over the bruising fight that ended in Carter's nomination, the landslide election of Ronald Reagan, and 12 long years of Republican Presidencies.
Now the Stop-Dean forces of the Clinton/Kennedy wing of the Democratic Party have two horses in the race -- Kerry and Wesley Clark. To bolster Kerry's faltering campaign and bring order to its internecine bickering, Kennedy has dispatched his chief of staff, Mary Beth Cahill, to take charge. Clark, the general from Arkansas, is surrounded by shop-worn Clintonistas.
UNLIKELY ALLIES. Last May, after Dean announced his health-care plan at Columbia University in New York City, I rode downtown with him on the subway. Surrounded by a tiny band of aides and reporters, Dean leaned against a subway car door like a native and fielded questions over the clatter. He was quick-witted and friendly, a largely unknown outsider recognized by only one rider.
Now not only is the Hotspur of the Cold North the front-runner, but Bush and his $185 million war chest, the other Democratic candidates, the Democratic Party Establishment, and the centrist Democratic media elite are all out to make him stumble. Isn't that enough to make a man snappish? Scotti, senior editor for government and sports business, offers his views every week in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BusinessWeek Online