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Early Stumbles May Lead to Long-Term Trouble for ’04 Hopefuls

Top o’ the mornin’ to ya on this St. Paddy’s Day.

It’s a little known fact that my great grandfather, Seamus O’Rothenberg, came from Ireland. I know people assumed that I was Jewish. After all, I grew up in New York, my father was in the shirt business and Rothenberg — well, it sounds Jewish, doesn’t it? Maybe the fact that the Torah reading for my bar mitzvah was Lech Lecha added to people’s confusion. But I never TOLD them I was Jewish. [IMGCAP(1)]

Did I do something wrong by letting people draw their own conclusions?

The recent flaps over Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) ethnicity and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s (D) seeming plagiarism of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) remind us that everything presidential contenders say — and don’t say — has the potential to become a campaign controversy.

Add to those stumbles Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (D-Mo.) ongoing clarifications of his position on displays of the Confederate flag in South Carolina and Sen. John Edwards’ (D-N.C.) early flop on “Meet the Press,” and most of the top-tier Democratic hopefuls have now hit at least one pothole on the road to the Democratic nomination.

Obviously, none of the four presidential hopefuls committed a mortal political sin, as did Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.) when, during his run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, he borrowed comments first made by British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock (as well as comments from Hubert Humphrey and Robert F. Kennedy).

Still, these stumbles can raise a variety of questions, whether about character, judgment, consistency or substance. And even if their immediate effect is minor, they can serve as markers that may (or may not) be validated by future behavior.

Kerry’s failure to correct the widely held impression that he is Irish received considerable attention in Massachusetts, the scene of the crime, but less attention elsewhere.

Was the Senator under an obligation years ago to correct a record that he must have known was wrong? I think so. Kerry was taking political advantage of a mistake — a mistake I’m willing to bet he would have corrected had it not worked in his favor.

Aides to the Senator argue that he did try to set the record straight and that there are only two or three occasions over the years when Kerry (or more correctly his office) implied that he was of Irish heritage. They may be right. But from now on reporters in Boston and across the nation will have their antennae up, looking for instances where the Senator may be trying to be all things to all people (much as Al Gore did).

Dean’s crowd-pleasing statement at the Democratic National Committee’s winter meeting that he wants to represent the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” was “borrowed” from page 216 of Wellstone’s book “The Conscience of a Liberal.”

“Always, with a twinkle in my eye, I will represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” wrote Wellstone.

Dean’s appropriation of the phrase, which received surprisingly little criticism in print, doesn’t rival Biden’s more extensive plagiarism.

I don’t know that Wellstone was the first or only person to come up with the catchy turn of phrase, but the former governor’s response to the episode, which amounted to little more than an assertion that he’ll continue to use the line, seems to reflect Dean’s exaggerated sense of his own importance and inability to engage in self-criticism.

In any case, the former governor’s use of the “Democratic wing” quote has given ammunition to some in his party who already distrust him and believe that what you see and hear from Dean is not always what you get. Similar missteps in the future could create a serious problem for his candidacy.

Gephardt’s multiple clarifications of his position on the Confederate flag isn’t the same type of misstep, but it presents its own problems. He appears either inarticulate or confused, and since he can count on being attacked by his rivals for changing his position on abortion, he needs to be clear and consistent on other issues.

After his first major Sunday-morning TV appearance bombed, Edwards knows full well that he needs to avoid the “lightweight” label, as well as the appearance that he is too slick. The Senator is trying to convince opinion-makers and Democratic activists that he is neither, and further missteps would make that difficult.

Early stumbles are particularly dangerous for Edwards and Dean, since they remain relatively unknown nationally and therefore can be more readily defined by errors at this point.

So far Dean and Florida Sen. Bob Graham (D) have received relatively delicate treatment from members of the national media.

In the case of Dean, it probably reflects the nature of the former Vermont governor’s outsider, in-your-face appeal and the difficulty that some journalists have in taking him seriously as a possible nominee. In the case of Graham, it’s his late start and relative invisibility as a presidential candidate.

But every Democrat with a chance of affecting the race for the presidential nomination will find himself or herself under the microscope, including Dean and Graham.

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