As the 2004 primary season officially begins, Democrats are facing one of the most unusual - and divisive - contests in decades, with insurgent front-runner Howard Dean sharply polarizing his party even as he appears positioned to capture its nomination.
Two weeks before the Iowa caucuses - the kick-off event in what is likely to be a decisive six-week run of primary contests - Dr. Dean has emerged as the man to beat. He leads in national and most individual state polls, has raised substantially more money than any of his rivals, and has won key endorsements from prominent unions and 2000 presidential nominee Al Gore.
But the former Vermont governor has also proved a highly controversial front-runner, whose rise has inspired passionate reactions from supporters and critics alike. Both sides see Dean's candidacy as transformative, though in strikingly different ways: Dean's backers believe he is remaking both the party and the political process, using the Internet to energize Dem-ocrats and independent voters alike with a message of grass-roots empowerment. His detractors, on the
other hand, see him as a gaffe-prone, Northeastern liberal whose nomination could not only ensure four more years of a Bush presidency, but also damage the Democrats' chances in congressional and other races.
Of course, front-runners often inspire intraparty animosity, particularly in the heat of a vigorous primary battle. During the 1992 contest, many Democrats worried that Bill Clinton would ruin the party with his centrist policies (and extramarital affairs).
But this cycle's rifts have been heightened by a number of unique factors, ranging from the Iraq war to Dean's positioning himself as an outsider running against his party's establishment. As a result, many observers say the eventual nominee - whether Dean or another candidate - may have an unusually difficult time uniting the party behind him.
"There's more than the normal level of anger at Dean than there [typically] is in a presidential race," says Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network. "Traditionally, insurgents don't win. Dean has run his campaign against two things - he's run against Bush, and he's run against what he believes to be a failed Washington party. And those who are part of the Washington party aren't very happy about that."
The polarity of opinion has been reinforced by the blunt assertions of Dean's opponents that he is unelectable - a view made strikingly clear in a debate last month when only Dean raised his hand in response to moderator Ted Koppel's query as to which candidates believed the former Vermont governor could beat Bush.
At the same time, Dean recently hinted that he couldn't guarantee his supporters would back a different Democratic nominee, were he to lose the primary, saying he thought it unlikely that they would rally behind a member of the Washington establishment.
To be sure, Democratic voters have not yet weighed in on the matter - and in many ways, the divisions over Dean may be largely an inside-the-Beltway phenomenon, with the strongest opposition to the Vermont doctor coming from rival campaigns and Washington insiders.
Yet the electorate itself has been unusually divided in the past year over certain issues directly linked to Dean's rise - the first and foremost being the war in Iraq and the question of how to conduct foreign policy in a time of terrorism.
"There is this quite divisive issue about what we do about our international commitments," says William Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University in Boston. "There's a great deal of division on that score, and there is at least one wing within the Democratic Party that is, to some extent, out of sync with the rest of the country."
While Dean clearly has the solid backing of the antiwar wing of the party, there's evidence that his support may be more tenuous among centrist Democrats who worry he will not be able to compete against President Bush on matters of national security: Significantly, in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's capture, Dean's lead in New Hampshire - while still strong - fell by eight points.
Still, some observers note that, aside from the Iraq war issue, Dean is less liberal than many critics make him out to be.
"He's proud to say he's a fiscal conservative," says Eric Hauser, a former adviser to Bill Bradley in the 2000 campaign. "The fear that he's going to push us over a cliff I think comes from people who are just focused on the war."
Moreover, Dean has taken care to emphasize that, while he remains opposed to the Iraq invasion, he supported the first Persian Gulf War, and would not hesitate to use force to defend the nation.
To many, the greater source of the rancor may simply be Dean's combative style, and the lack of deference he's shown toward opponents.
This has been reinforced by the dynamics of the Democratic field, which has pitted Dean, a formerly unknown governor from a tiny state, against an atypically large roster of Washington heavyweights, including a former vice-presidential nominee, the former House leader, and a former NATO commander who seemed to have the tacit backing of the Clintons. Some Democratic observers suggest that Dean's success has been particularly galling to the vested interests in the party because he rose from relative obscurity - and seemed to change the rules of the game in the process, finding new ways to raise money and build support.
Dean also tapped into a pervasive sense among many Democrats - particularly in the wake of the 2002 elections - that the party's leaders had failed to stand up to Bush.
But his attacks may also have left some Democratic voters unsure about his general temperament and capacity to lead the party.
"He's seen as divisive because of his manner," says Mr. Hauser. "He's angry and that's riled up a lot of people. But also, just with his fellow candidates, there's an edge. There's a tone that has made people wary."
Ultimately, say observers, Dean's challenge will be to move from being a voice of opposition to offering a more positive vision for where he wants to take the country. "Right now he's more defined by what he's against than really what he's for," acknowledges Mr. Rosenberg. "And if we're going to win next year, we're going to have to have as powerful a sense of what we're fighting for as what we're fighting against."