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Dean Backers Work the House

At a fundraiser last week in Washington, D.C., former Vermont governor and current Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean challenged the crowd to “tell the Democratic Party to stop voting with the president half of the time and stand up and tell him he is wrong.”

Flanking him were Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), the only two Members outside Dean’s home state to endorse his presidential bid. (Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) are also backing Dean.)

Unlike most of their colleagues who are supporting one of the more establishment candidates, Lofgren and Abercrombie are behind a man who has bulled his way into the top tier of the presidential race by pledging to, literally, “break into the country club” in Washington.

Both House Members reject the seeming paradox implicit in their support for Dean.

Lofgren explained that Dean’s anti-Washington rhetoric is aimed more at stylistically differentiating himself from his Democratic opponents than issuing a broad ideological indictment of all Democratic elected officials in Washington.

Lofgren notes that on the issue Dean has differed most vehemently from his Washington competitors — the resolution supporting the war on Iraq — “a majority of Democrats in the House voted against it too.”

The resolution passed the House last October 296-133, with Democrats accounting for all but seven of the dissenting votes.

Abercrombie added that the label of outsider is “immaterial” to Dean. “He doesn’t see himself that way.”

Aside from Dean and the Rev. Al Sharpton, however, all seven of the other presidential candidates have served in Washington for at least a portion of their careers.

Sens. John Kerry (Mass.), John Edwards (N.C.), Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and Bob Graham (Fla.), as well as Reps. Dick Gephardt (Mo.) and Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), currently hold federal office. Former Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun represented Illinois in the Senate from 1993 to 1999.

Despite his criticisms of the city’s political culture and lack of obvious footholds within it, Dean is working hard behind the scenes to gather support from Washington with the dual goals of further solidifying his status as a serious contender for the nomination and broadening his fundraising base.

Dean faces an additional hurdle: Some party elites are shopping the notion that, if he becomes the party’s nominee, his strong anti-war stance could lead to disastrous downballot consequences in Senate and House races.

Abercrombie said that Dean is “working very hard to get as many Members acquainted with him as he can with the express purpose of trying to show them he can win in their districts.

Courtney O’Donnell, a spokeswoman for Dean, said that “every endorsement from a Member of Congress to a student to a neighborhood MeetUp group, is critical and helps build our strength and momentum as a campaign.”

Lofgren, the first Member outside Vermont to announce support for Dean, said she was initially won over by the governor when she called to ask where she could see him speak and instead was invited to talk with Dean at a hotel in Washington.

“We met for a while and talked about issues and I was very impressed,” Lofgren said. Seeking more information, the California Congresswoman brought her teenage son to see Dean speak at the state party convention in Sacramento because of the teen-ager’s “sense of who’s for real and who isn’t.”

Dean “knocked it out of the park,” after a long day of speeches, recounted Lofgren; the former governor had her teen-age son volunteering for the campaign.

Lofgren — who said, “Ordinarily I wouldn’t jump at the beginning”— endorsed Dean as she drove him to the airport after the speech.

“I thought this guy is the best chance we have to win the election and maybe if I do an endorsement, that would help in terms of pushing his candidacy forward a bit,” she added.

In hopes of helping Dean make inroads among Members, Lofgren organized a breakfast in March where eight to 10 Members came and spoke with Dean.

That meeting led to Abercrombie’s endorsement and, Lofgren said, “some of the Members who were there have not yet endorsed but they are seriously thinking about it.”

Abercrombie said he and Lofgren are working to schedule meetings between Dean and their colleagues, not necessarily to extract endorsements, but more to simply introduce the governor to more House Democrats.

“What we want is exposure and opportunity,” said Abercrombie. “He earnestly solicits [Members’] advice and counsel even if they don’t support him.”

“[Dean] has not asked me and Neil to go chase down people,” Lofgren said about Dean’s approach to Member backing. “I am sure he would value further endorsements.”

Despite his efforts, Dean faces an uphill challenge to match the Congressional support of other top-tier candidates.

Gephardt is the clear leader in the Member endorsement game with 31 of his House colleagues signed on to his campaign.

Gephardt’s endorsements include powerful House figures such as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.).

Kerry has secured 16 Members —11 from his home state — while Lieberman has 12 Members behind his bid.

Graham announced late Friday that he had secured the backing of fellow Floridians Sen. Bill Nelson and Reps. Alcee Hastings, Peter Deutsch, Jim Davis, Corrine Brown and Kendrick Meek. Rep. Allan Boyd (Fla.) had previously endorsed Graham.

And, while Member endorsements are sometimes dismissed as largely symbolic in the fight for the nomination, Gephardt has already parlayed his support into crucial dollars.

The Missouri Congressman held a fundraising event Wednesday with all of his Congressional supporters that brought in $250,000 for his campaign.

Dean may soon have Members putting their money where their mouths are as well. Lofgren said she was laying the groundwork for an event in her San Jose-based district in the near future.

“Dean is not as well known [as Kerry and Lieberman] but a lot of my friends have already sent him money and are interested in meeting him,” Lofgren said.

Lofgren’s support is likely to give Dean further appeal in Silicon Valley, the hub of the technology industry in the United States as well as a huge fundraising vein for Democratic candidates.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, then-Vice President Al Gore raised more than $2.5 million in the 2000 cycle from individuals in the communications and electronics industries. Dean raised a respectable $2.6 million in the first three months of the year but saw Kerry and Edwards raise almost triple that amount.

As for Dean’s prospects in gaining endorsements in the House and Senate, Lofgren and Abercrombie are optimistic.

Both agree that most Members are playing a “wait and see” game designed to see how the field shakes out in the months leading up to the Iowa caucuses. Of the 205 House Democrats, only 74, or roughly a third, have endorsed any of the nine candidates.

“[Members] want a winner and they are looking to see who is going to be the winner,” Abercrombie said.

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