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It Ain’t Over ‘til It’s Over, But It’s Probably Over

At some point during the next two or three months, the Democratic presidential contest is more likely than not to turn into a two-man race between former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and someone else, probably Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.). But don’t be fooled. The Democratic race is over. [IMGCAP(1)]

Dean has wrapped up the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. Well, almost.

Dean became a near lock for his party’s nomination during the past week, when he opted not to accept public funds for his primary campaign and when two big labor groups, the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, announced that they were backing him in the race.

And all of this happened just when Dean was on the ropes for allegedly being hostile to Medicare and gun control, as well as for being insensitive when he said he’d like to receive the votes of Southerners with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks. Suddenly, all of that is ancient history.

Even before last week, Dean had already pulled ahead of the Democratic field in fundraising, developed the best message for party activists, successfully positioned himself as a vehicle for change, established himself as the favorite in New Hampshire and at least the co-frontrunner in Iowa, and demonstrated an ability tap Democratic grassroots anger and frustration.

While Dean strengthened a campaign this week that had already demonstrated enough organizational and financial muscle to pull ahead of the rest of the field, he did something even more important: He undercut the electability argument that has fueled some of the opposition to him, particularly in establishment circles.

Early on, Dean was portrayed in the media as the candidate of the Volvo and merlot set, a Democrat who could appeal to upscale, highly educated voters but not to working-class Democrats.

But in winning the endorsement of AFSCME and SEIU, the former Vermont governor has enhanced his own political résumé and frustrated Gephardt’s goal of winning the AFL-CIO endorsement. He has also improved his chances of stealing Iowa from the Missouri Congressman, since AFSCME is the largest union in Iowa. And he has strengthened himself in New Hampshire, where SEIU is the largest union with 7,500 members.

True, Gephardt has a long (and longer) list of labor endorsements, and his “fair trade” stance has helped him earn the support of industrial unions and blue-collar voters. But Dean’s endorsements suddenly give him a new weapon against Gephardt and the rest of the field.

The SEIU and AFSCME endorsements credential Dean to Democratic primary voters who have yet to focus on the contest or who have doubts about the former Vermont governor. And since about one in five SEIU members is black, Dean has gained an entree into the African-American community, a key Democratic constituency that has not yet warmed to his bid.

In refusing public funding of his campaign, Dean guarantees that he’ll have the resources to both outspend his opponents in early primary states and outlast his opponents if need be. It makes him possibly the only hopeful, with the exception of Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), who will have the resources to compete in all of the primaries and caucuses from Iowa through March 2, 2004.

Who would have thought a year ago that Dean would be positioned for the race whether it’s a sprint through Iowa and New Hampshire or a long-distance race that continues into March?

Dean’s financial muscle also gives him a unique advantage over the rest of the field: He can go head-to-head against President Bush during the spring and summer, when the president will have a huge war chest to spend.

The former governor’s financial strength suddenly makes him more electable both in his quest for the Democratic nomination and in a general election contest against the president. Whatever you think about Gephardt, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) or Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), they aren’t likely to have enough money to compete with Bush over next summer, and that puts them at a disadvantage that Dean would not face.

Given that electability has always been one of the question marks hanging over the former Vermont governor, forsaking public funding gives Dean a powerful argument to use on those who, more than anything else, want someone who can deny the president re-election.

This week, one Democratic operative who has been in the middle of the party’s presidential contest for months placed the likelihood of Dean’s nomination at 80 percent. That sounds about right to me, too. There’s always a chance that Dean could stick his foot in his mouth a few more times, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. But in politics, 80 percent is close to a sure thing.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.