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The Outsider Meets the Insiders

In D.C., Dean Assesses the Competition, Touts His Blunt Approach

In a Democratic presidential field that includes, for now, three Senators and a 26-year House veteran, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is the outsider, no doubt about it.

Just ask him.

“It’s going to work enormously to my benefit,” Dean said during a roundtable with reporters last week.

Already exploiting a finely honed reputation for blunt speaking, Dean believes he’ll be able to connect with voters — especially in the early primary and caucus states — in a way that Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Sens. John Edwards (D-N.C.), John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) won’t.

“The sharpest difference is style,” Dean said. “I’m unambiguous. I don’t flinch from defending my positions and I don’t try to mitigate my positions to satisfy different interest groups.”

Dean cited his opposition to a possible war in Iraq as a perfect example.

In recent appearances before dovish party activists in Iowa, site of the first Democratic caucus next year, Kerry, Gephardt and Dean have expressed their reservations about President Bush’s tough talk on Iraq. But Kerry and Gephardt voted for bills last fall that would give Bush additional war powers.

“Iowans,” Dean said, “are not stupid.

“Members of Congress are trained to nuance every position, to say as little as possible, to send press releases to reporters in their home states hundreds of miles away who are much more interested, frankly, in the fighting that’s going on between the governor and the Legislature,” the former governor, whose fifth two-year term ended earlier this month, said. “Governors are trained to make tough decisions, tell people, respectfully, why they didn’t agree with them and lead people in the direction they do not always want to be led in.”

Dean also hopes to take the Democratic Party in a direction it doesn’t necessarily want to be led in — to the left. But he won’t put it that way. He talks of moving the party — and the country — “to the center,” and dismisses Lieberman, the poster child for centrist Democrats, as “a conservative.”

“I think the national Democratic Party — the leadership in Congress of the national Democratic Party — is supporting policy items put forth by this very, very conservative president that they should not be supporting,” Dean said.

In today’s political calculus, however, being against the war, calling for universal health care coverage paid for in part by rolling back Bush’s 2001 tax cut, and signing the first-in-the-nation law allowing gays and lesbians to enter into “civil unions,” may not qualify as centrist.

That doesn’t stop Dean from trying to assign that label to those positions anyway, noting that former President Harry Truman — “a centrist Democrat from Missouri, for God sakes” — first proposed universal health care and pushed for equal rights for blacks in the military. And he mitigates his more progressive positions by emphasizing his fervor for balanced budgets and his opposition to some gun-control laws and the new federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“Centrism is universal health care, allowing the states to make up their own minds about how they run their school systems and what kind of gun laws they have, equal rights under the law for everybody, and a balanced budget,” Dean argued. “A balanced budget — that’s very centrist.”

Call it what you will, but Dean’s jambalaya of positions is playing best with progressive party activists who often wield unusual clout in presidential nominating contests. And while they may not be Beltway insiders with friends on Capitol Hill and K Street, they represent insiders of a different sort, and Dean has been careful to pay homage, even if it means traveling to this ultimate insiders’ city with some regularity. Earlier this month, he accepted a new award from the AFL-CIO named for the late, liberal Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.). And of the six Democratic presidential contenders invited — the Members of Congress plus the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York — Dean was cheered the loudest at a banquet last week for NARAL Pro-Choice America, the country’s leading abortion-rights group. On Friday, he held a low-dollar fundraiser at a townhouse on Capitol Hill that drew more than 100 people.

In a wide-ranging, hour-long conversation with Roll Call, Dean was at times brimming with policy detail — such as when he outlined the specifics of his health care plan (Dean is also a physician). He was sketchier on foreign policy questions. And at other times, he was politically calculating, playing the ultimate insider’s game as he assessed his opponents and their strengths and weaknesses.

But there were other times during the conversation when the 54-year-old Vermonter — who grew up in New York — resisted political questions altogether.

At one point, Dean broke down New Hampshire, noting Kerry’s advantage because so many New Hampshire Democrats read and listen to the Boston media.

“I will do very well among the independents there,” he said.

Dean’s analysis of Iowa: “Dick [Gephardt] will have the inside track and Kerry’s got more money than the Lord,” he said. He added that he was relieved Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) chose not to run for president, because he believes he and Daschle are similar.

But when asked where he has to win to break out of the pack, Dean resisted.

“That’s a process question,” he replied — something he said on several occasions.

While Dean asserts his outsider style will be key to his success in the early primaries, he is quick to tout the support of one of the most prominent Washington insiders: Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.).

Jeffords said his years of work with his former home-state governor made Dean an easy choice over his Congressional colleagues running for the White House. Jeffords said his support for Dean was “99 percent.”

“I give a couple of the others a pat on the back,” he joked.

When Jeffords was in California late last year helping raise money for Senate Democrats, he also lent a fundraising hand to Dean, who happened to be in the Golden State at the same time. Jeffords also joined Dean at the Capitol Hill fundraiser Friday.

Jeffords said that a big showing in New Hampshire could prove critical to Dean’s chances.

Dean also enjoys the support of Vermont’s senior Senator, Patrick Leahy (D), according to Luke Albee, Leahy’s chief of staff.

And how is Dean regarded by his insider rivals?

Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), a possible presidential contender, agreed with Dean’s assessment of how the public perceives Congressional contenders for the White House compared to governors. There is a difference, Graham said, that comes across in their style and mannerisms when they address audiences.

“There’s no question that the way an executive goes about his business is different than the way a legislator goes about his business,” said Graham, who served two terms as governor of Florida before being elected to the Senate in 1986.

But Graham argued that in the current international climate, it is also necessary for presidential contenders to have a firm grasp of global events, something he said he has gained as past chairman of the Intelligence Committee and complementing his two terms as governor.

“I, immodestly, say I bring both of those to the table,” he said. “It adds to your experience and judgement.”

Of his primary opponents, Dean has kind things to say about Gephardt — whom he campaigned for in Iowa during the 1988 presidential election — even as he accuses the former House Minority Leader of stealing his health care position.

It’s clear that Dean regards not being from Washington as the key to his fortunes. Will national Democrats respond to the doctor’s brusk bedside manner?

“People in Washington treat their constituents like children,” Dean said. “I treat my constituents like patients, in that they have a lot to say about what kind of decision-making they’d like to do. And I actually think the voters like you better if that’s what you do, because you have respected their intelligence.”

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