WASHINGTON — Last week in a most unexpected place, a "Rock the Vote" forum, Howard Dean displayed his greatest strength and weakness as a presidential candidate in one fell swoop. He stood on stage and, in the face of challenges and criticism (much of it intellectually dishonest), he stood his ground, got a little surly, and refused to back down.
By now almost everyone is familiar with the scene. Standing on stage with the rest of the chorus line of Democratic hopefuls, Mr. Dean refused to back off a suddenly controversial statement he'd made about a group of Southern voters. The former Vermont governor told the assembled crowd, "I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks."
The Rev. Al Sharpton criticized Dean for making a racist statement.
Sen. John Edwards criticized him for stereotyping and talking down to Southerners. They weren't alone.
Sen. John Kerry said he'd rather be the candidate of the NAACP than the NRA.
And Rep. Dick Gephardt scored the biggest empty rhetoric points for the statement: "I will be the candidate for guys with American flags in their pickup trucks." No word yet on whether the "guys with American flags" are interested.
The debate on Dean's comments is largely overheated and silly. As a candidate, Dean's been spouting one form or another of this statement for months, arguing that the voters he's talking about have the same concerns as most Americans. They, too, need health insurance, too, he says, so they should vote for him regardless of his Yankee background or their feelings about the Democratic party as a whole.
Dean's truncation of the statement was clumsy, but every candidate on stage knew what he meant. Most probably agreed with him. And in the end, the righteous indignation that was oozing off the stage was more about vamping than anger or offense.
Still, the moment presented for Democrats the promise and peril of a Dean candidacy.
When asked why they've cast their lot with the man, Dean supporters normally don't cite positions, they talk about the man. From early on, Dean's appeal has been personal. Even if his supporters don't agree with him, they're willing to trust him. In fact, they may like him more because he doesn't agree with them. They like his toughness and think it makes him an excellent adversary for President Bush.
This is Dean's "McCain appeal."
As Sen. John McCain was in 2000 for the Republicans, Dean is 2004's "straight-talk candidate." He's the guy whose greatest talent is making you believe he's being honest with you, that he's telling it like it is - consequences be damned.
In the Republican Party, it's difficult to win the nomination with an insurgent "straight talk" campaign.
But on the wild and wooly Democratic side, the rules are more favorable.
However, with all that straight talk comes a few problems.
The candidate who "doesn't care what you think" is bound to eventually say some things that anger people. He also tends to be the kind of guy who is loath to admit he made a mistake.
During the debate, Dean simply could have acknowledged that he had shortened his statement too much and that it came out wrong. He could have said that he understood how it could be misconstrued. He didn't do any of that. Feeling he was under attack, he got his back up and refused to admit any mistake - until a day later. It was early enough in the campaign that Dean is likely to be relatively unaffected, but the pressure is only going to increase in the coming weeks.
He's the clear front-runner now, and every statement he utters is going to be grist for opposition research.
All candidates make mistakes. They misspeak. They stumble. The question now for Dean is how he handles it. The balancing act between straight-talker and front-runner gets much harder from here on out. The stakes are incredibly high for Dean at this point and they are about to get a lot higher.
If everything goes as planned, sometime Wednesday two of the nation's biggest unions - the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union - will endorse the recognized front-runner. The endorsements are potentially huge for Dean. AFSCME has a big organization in Iowa, home of the nation's first caucus, and SEIU is the biggest union in New Hampshire, the state that holds the nation's first real primary.
It could be said soon that, with an early lead and those endorsements in hand, the only person who can stop Howard Dean is Howard Dean. But he could prove to be a tough opponent.