WASHINGTON — Howard Dean may fast become the poster boy for the saying, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
When an independent Democratic group ran a TV ad last week featuring Osama bin Laden's face and an anti-Dean message, the Democratic presidential front-runner appealed to his supporters. The result: $552,000 in Internet donations over three days.
The point of the ad - which aired in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, and has now been pulled - was to warn that Dr. Dean has no foreign-policy or military experience and wouldn't be able to compete with President Bush next November. Some Dean rivals agreed that the tone was over the top, but also agreed with its message.
Thus was capped a week framed by Bush foreign-policy successes - the capture of Saddam Hussein and a vow by Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to abandon unconventional weapons - and punctuated by a Democratic pile-on against the man who may end up being the party's nominee.
For some Democrats, the sound of party members speaking ill of another Democrat led to hand-wringing that the party was doing the work of Bush's reelection team. All Bush's advisers would need to do, they said, was sit back and reap the rewards of colorful anti-Dean sound bites coming out of rival campaigns.
Perhaps the most memorable came from Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who arguably had his best week in an otherwise struggling campaign. He called Dean "Dr. No" for opposing the Iraq war, and added that Dean had crawled into a "spider hole of denial." After Dean's speech Thursday on domestic policies, Lieberman declared, "Howard Dean is soft on defense and hard on the middle class."
Observers say Dean's opponents have no choice; the do-or-die moment is fast approaching. The primaries begin soon after the holidays, and will take place in quick succession, leaving little time for Dean rivals to recover if they don't do reasonably well in Iowa or New Hampshire.
"If you look at the polls and how low Bush's approval rating is among self-identified Democrats, then regardless of how bitter the primary fight gets, Democrats will reunify behind their candidate," says Stephen Wayne, a presidential-campaign expert at Georgetown University. So the question is not how anti-Dean rhetoric affects Democrats, Mr. Wayne adds, but whether it gives Bush enough ammunition to raise questions among political independents.
Furthermore, Bush may need look no further than Dean's own rhetoric for campaign fodder. In his major speech last Monday on foreign policy, Dean memorably stated that Hussein's capture "did not make America safer" - an assertion that runs counter to post-capture polls, which show a solid majority of Americans believing the war has made them safer.
Republican activists say that footage of Dean, sleeves rolled up and face red, getting riled up at campaign appearances would also serve nicely in campaign ads (theme: "When Democrats attack") if the former Vermont governor is Bush's opponent.
Still, some of modern American politics' most memorable jabs have been uttered by fellow party members. The charge of "voodoo economics" was leveled by the president's father, George H.W. Bush, against Ronald Reagan during the 1980 campaign, before the senior Bush became his running mate. In 1984, when Newt Gingrich was a Republican back-bencher in the House, he called then-Senate Finance Committee chair and fellow Republican Bob Dole "the tax collector for the welfare state" - an epithet dredged up often when Senator Dole ran for president in 1996.
In both cases, no one claims the charges hurt the candidates. Reagan went on to win the presidency, and Dole won the Republican nomination. And even if Republicans nominally added an 11th Commandment - "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican" - during Reagan's 1966 campaign for governor of California, the Democrats have invoked no such rule.
"The primary commandment for ... anyone who participates in American democracy is to engage in an honest debate of ideas," says Jano Cabrera, communications director for the Lieberman campaign. "We have not, and will not, launch negative personal attacks against Governor Dean, but we will certainly make clear the different visions that Lieberman and Dean have put forward."
At the least, spicy rhetoric may get the public's attention in a campaign where many voters have yet to tune in. The key, say party officials, is to keep negativity from crossing the line into the harshly personal. Kathy Sullivan, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, demanded the bin Laden ad be taken off the air, calling it nasty and divisive.
The ad has stopped running, but that's also a matter of campaign law: Under the new rules, outside groups must stop airing campaign ads within 30 days of a primary. (The Iowa caucuses are Jan. 19 and the New Hampshire primary is Jan. 27.) A group called Americans for Jobs, Health Care and Progressive Values, with ties to the campaigns of Rep. Dick Gephardt and Sen. John Kerry, has spent $400,000 on the ad. Both candidates disavow any connection to it. And some pro-Gephardt unions that have donated money to the group say they did not know it would produce such a nasty ad.