Democratic race pivots on Dean

In first of six debates Thursday, rivals may focus as much on the Vermonter as on Bush.

With the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination now in the decisive fall campaign season, the growing dominance of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is changing the dynamics of the race.

In a field characterized for months by evenly matched contenders - and no real stars - Dr. Dean is suddenly setting the pace, presenting his opponents with both a standard and a target.

Already, candidates such as Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry are stepping up their criticisms of Dean, even as they scramble to adopt some of his tactics.

The attacks are likely to take a more pointed tone beginning Thursday, when all nine candidates assemble in New Mexico for the first of six fall debates.

For rivals looking to topple the surging Dean, the debates may provide a singular opportunity - as one famously did for Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984 when he brought a halt to Sen. Gary Hart's surging campaign with his pointed line, "Where's the beef?"

Yet the candidates face significant risks in trying to bring Dean down - and most are likely to approach the task with caution. Not only can attacks easily tar the person launching them as much as their intended object, they could also inflame Dean's supporters.

Still, analysts say Dean's mounting strength may well force his rivals to confront him directly before he pulls too far ahead.

"Right now, Dean has the momentum, and it's not apparent that momentum can be broken unless he screws up - or unless his opponents raise or point to an issue that puts him on the defensive," says Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst.

Most rival campaigns profess themselves unconcerned by Dean's apparent strength. Although polls show the former governor with widening leads in key primary states such as New Hampshire and Iowa, some argue much of this momentum can be attributed to Dean's early spate of TV advertising - a move other candidates are only now following. In national surveys, however, Dean still trails the better-known Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Rep. Richard Gephardt among registered Democrats.

And with more than four months to go before the first ballots are cast, many say there is still plenty of time for another candidate to emerge. Senator Kerry only made his candidacy official this week, for example, and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina will make his announcement shortly. Indeed, according to polls, most voters still don't even know who's running.

"[Dean's] had a good launch," acknowledges David Axelrod, an adviser to Senator Edwards. "But the reality is, it doesn't mean much right now. Things are fluid."

Yet most candidates do see Dean as a threat to someone, if not themselves. Mr. Axelrod argues Dean is primarily endangering Kerry and Gephardt, who have lost their leads in their must-win states of New Hampshire and Iowa, respectively. "That may put a different kind of pressure on them," he says.

Other strategists argue it's candidates like Edwards who are most hurt by Dean's rise, since the former governor has effectively sucked up all the oxygen in the race, leaving room for just one other Democrat at most. "Other candidates are being suffocated," says a Democratic consultant.

Regardless of which candidate is most threatened, analysts agree that the rest of the field is now essentially fighting to become the alternative to Dean - which means the fight will likely take a sharper turn.

"It will get a good deal more nasty because now the battle is for second place," says Emmett Buell, an expert on the primary process at Denison University. The candidate who successfully claims that position, Professor Buell notes, "might well have a better chance" of winning in the end, particularly if Dean stumbles or is unable to convince voters of his electability in a matchup with President Bush.

But rivals trying to differentiate themselves from Dean face significant hurdles, since they must draw contrasts without seeming overly negative or alienating key voting blocs.

For example, Senator Lieberman has tried to portray himself as a centrist alternative, arguing that Dean's opposition to the Iraq war makes him weak on defense, and would kill the party's chances in the general election. Yet so far, that position has been of little help to him, as many liberal voters - who tend to dominate Democratic primary elections - remain opposed to the war.

Kerry, too, has criticized Dean on national security, highlighting the former governor's lack of experience in international affairs.

Kerry has also called Dean's proposal to roll back all of Mr. Bush's tax cuts an unfair burden on the middle class. "If you're a $40,000 income earner, Howard Dean's going to raise your taxes more than 20 times," he charged recently on NBC's "Meet the Press."

And he is raising subtle contrasts on issues such as gun control, saying in his announcement speech: "I'm not looking to be the candidate of the NRA" (Dean has boasted of his favorable NRA ratings as governor).

Even if these carefully targeted attacks succeed in halting Dean's momentum, analysts say the risk in a multicandidate field is that whoever brings the front-runner down may inadvertently wind up clearing the path for another candidate less tainted by the fight.

"It's kind of like hara-kari," says Mr. Rothenberg. "If you're John Kerry, you're saving the party - but you may be saving it for Dick Gephardt or John Edwards."

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