Will Dean Become A Sitting Duck?

Late last year, a little-known Democratic Presidential candidate confided deep misgivings about his party’s revamped nomination process. The would-be Bush challenger worried that by accelerating the tempo of primaries and caucuses in 2004, the Democrats would make a decision they would later regret.

“In the past, when we’ve done this, settled on somebody quick, then you have buyer’s remorse,” he told The Boston Globe , one of very few media outlets interested in his opinions back then. “We’ve become a sitting duck for that.”

The candid Cassandra who issued that warning-well before his own surprising rise-was Howard Dean.

As the man now considered most likely to win the Democratic nomination, Dr. Dean can be forgiven if he has changed his mind about the merits of the primary schedule. He may find the subject quite amusing, because the changes in primary rules pushed through by party insiders were hardly designed to enable a candidacy like his own.

Apparently nobody anticipated that a grassroots, independent insurgent might so dominate early states like Iowa and New Hampshire as to become an almost unstoppable force. Yet such juggernauts have showed up in the history of both parties, overthrowing expectations and undoing well-laid plans. According to the conventional wisdom, that is what Dr. Dean’s skilled, energetic and passionate crusade seems to be on the verge of achieving next month.

The same sages who regard candidate Dean as virtually unbeatable in the primaries often suggest that he cannot possibly win the Presidency. On both counts, their pronouncements are premature.

Whether Dr. Dean would enhance or harm the party’s mixed prospects of defeating George W. Bush cannot be determined with any certainty. He would bring strengths as well as weaknesses to a national campaign. He credibly suggests that his small donors can compete with the wealthy Republican “Pioneers”-and that his hundreds of thousands of dedicated supporters could eventually rival the huge ground campaign being mounted by Karl Rove.

While the President easily defeats the former Vermont Governor when voters are asked to choose between them today, those figures don’t necessarily predict the outcome next November. Those same surveys reveal serious doubt about whether Mr. Bush deserves to be re-elected. Republican strategists often say that this election will be close no matter which of the leading Democrats is nominated.

But the advantage still belongs to the incumbent, so heed the warning offered by Dr. Dean when he was still obscure. If Democrats care most about winning back the White House, is he their most promising champion?

The outspoken, discursive style that has won Dr. Dean so many dedicated admirers occasionally trips him up with awful malapropisms and gaffes. He admits that too often his mouth outruns his mind. Even though this President has lowered the bar on that score, any Democrat who runs against him will come under the kind of severe scrutiny that Mr. Bush has largely escaped. Ill-considered remarks on such topics as the current leadership of the “Soviet Union” will be repeated on an endless video loop.

Dr. Dean’s prickly personality and cultural distance from flyover country also provoke concern among Democrats who hope to defeat the faux-folksy President. But what deserves the most attention is how little we still know about the Democratic front-runner-and what we are only beginning to learn about him.

Only lately, for example, has the news media examined Dr. Dean’s draft record during the Vietnam War, owing to the discovery of his late brother Charles’ remains in Laos. After winning a draft deferment due to a disabling back condition, the young Dean spent the following year on the ski slopes of Colorado. His snappy response explained little: “I took a physical, I failed a physical. If that makes this an issue, then so be it.” That won’t deflect the Bush camp’s inevitable attacks on his qualifications as commander in chief, despite the President’s own curious military service.

And what of Dr. Dean’s record in Vermont? He deserves credit for his successes, notably in expanding health-care coverage. But that isn’t the whole story-and the former governor seems determined to prevent reporters and opponents from looking at the state documents he placed under seal in 2002.

That may protect him until the primaries are effectively over. But how will he criticize Vice President Dick Cheney for meeting secretly with energy-industry lobbyists, if he won’t release the records of his own meetings with nuclear-power executives in Vermont? Dr. Dean replies sharply that Mr. Bush, too, hid his gubernatorial records. On this and many other issues, however, the national media will treat the challenger more skeptically than the incumbent.

Until now, the press has subjected Dr. Dean to little of the withering interrogation that is to come. The only certainty in this race is that any such indulgence will end on the day he clinches the nomination.