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Although former Vice President Al Gore’s alliance with ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has not led to an immediate avalanche of Congressional endorsements, it has furthered the growing acceptance among Members and key party strategists that he is very likely to be the Democratic Party’s standard bearer against President Bush.

And, despite much talk about an organized effort among party elders to stop Dean’s momentum emanating from Washington, D.C., interviews with a variety of Congressional aides, consultants and advisers to other Democratic presidential candidates turned up little concrete evidence of a coordinated effort to deny Dean the nomination.

“Are there people around this town grumbling? I am sure there are,” said one prominent Democratic consultant. “Is there a clear consensus behind who would be better? No.”

What is clear is that the initially frosty reception that Dean received on Capitol Hill has warmed considerably as it has become clearer and clearer throughout the year that the one-time long shot is the prohibitive favorite for the nomination. Signs that Members were taking a second look at Dean’s candidacy were perceptible at both ends of the Capitol.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) admitted that “in January I didn’t think [Dean] would be relevant.”

Matsui said his thinking with regard to Dean had evolved considerably since then, and that he was now “very impressed” with Dean. He also predicted that the former governor’s emphasis on his opposition to the war in Iraq would not have a negative impact on down-ballot races.

In fact, Matsui seemed to be adopting some of Dean’s rhetoric on the war.

“The war was, to an extent, to take attention from the economy,” alleged Matsui, picking up on the kind of harsh criticism Dean has offered of Bush foreign policy.

Rep. Marion Berry (Ark.), one of the leading Congressional supporters of retired Gen. Wesley Clark’s presidential campaign, said Dean’s campaign has “energized a whole sector of the electorate that both parties have been trying to figure out how to energize.”

“None of these people could not win,” added Berry. “I don’t think you have a McGovern or a Dukakis out there.”

In fact, other Clark supporters on the Hill went so far as to say they were increasingly comfortable with the idea of a Dean-Clark ticket — a combination intended to shore up the Vermonter’s foreign policy flank and which would give Democrats a pair of “outsider” candidates.

On the Senate side, Luke Albee, chief of staff to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), has been making calls in recent days to Member offices asking what further information he could provide about Dean, according to several knowledgeable sources.

Albee has hosted a meeting with Senate chiefs of staff for many years and of late had played host to key staffers for each of the presidential candidates.

Those familiar with the meetings indicated that Albee’s calls are the first active solicitation of support for Dean that he has done.

Albee maintained that throughout the gatherings all those in attendance knew that both he and Leahy were supporting Dean.

As Dean backers continue to press their effort on Capitol Hill, those advocating a unified front to stop him have been hamstrung by their inability to settle on which candidate they believe is best suited to dealing him a significant setback in an early contest.

“In order to stop Dean, you need to beat him somewhere,” said an aide to a rival candidate’s campaign. “We need to raise a bunch of money and get it to someone. We need to operate through one of the candidates.”

Berry said several Members working as surrogates for other presidential candidates approached him last week saying: “We’ve got to stop Dean and maybe we can pair your guy and my guy up.”

But, Berry said, he did not bother to even pass the entreaties along to Clark because “we have to let the process work.”

One Democrat compared the attempts to stop Dean to a similar effort in 1976, when Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter came from nowhere to lead the Democratic field.

Among the institutional figures who were proposed at one time or another to stop Carter were: Sens. Henry “Scoop” Jackson (Wash.), Frank Church (Idaho) and Hubert Humphrey (Minn.), as well as Arizona Rep. Mo Udall and California Gov. Jerry Brown.

“There were a bunch of known quantities,” said the source. “There was never one known quantity.”

The consensus appears to be that Clark, Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) and Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) are the most viable alternatives to Dean. And, supporters of each have their own scenario by which their candidate is the only one capable of blunting the momentum Dean has generated.

In making their case to become the alternative, Gephardt allies contend that unless the Missouri Congressman bests Dean in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses, it will be nearly impossible to stop the former governor, given his seemingly insurmountable edge in New Hampshire, which holds its primary just eight days later.

In 13 of the past 14 presidential nominating races, a candidate who won Iowa, New Hampshire or both became the nominee.

“Iowa is all the marbles,” said one Democratic House aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “If you want to beat Dean, the only option is to go work for Gephardt.”

Sources familiar with the Gephardt effort in Iowa said that a number of lobbyists and others with ties to the Missouri Congressman will work unpaid for him in Iowa in the final month before the caucuses.

The most prominent of these volunteers is Moses Mercado, a former Gephardt deputy chief of staff who is vice president of federal affairs at the American Insurance Association.

Gephardt is also expected to use many of the 34 Members who have endorsed his bid to campaign with and for him in Iowa, a tactic he used successfully during his 1988 caucus victory.

Both Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) endorsed Gephardt, and sources within the Caucus say they will continue to work on his behalf, irrespective of Dean’s latest surge to the top.

Neither Pelosi nor Hoyer plans a major change in strategy, but both will continue to raise money, travel and encourage support for Gephardt, key aides said. Their efforts would have been stepped up either way, given the timing of the Iowa caucuses.

Supporters of Clark and Edwards believe that regardless of the results in Iowa and New Hampshire, the question of whether Dean can be stopped will not be answered until Feb. 3, when six states will hold primary or caucus contests.

One strategist favorably inclined to Clark’s bid said that if the general is able to win South Carolina, Oklahoma and Arizona on Feb. 3 it will push the nomination fight through the Feb. 10 states of Virginia and Tennessee and might even set up a decisive clash in Wisconsin, which holds its primary Feb. 17 and where no candidate now enjoys a pronounced advantage.

“Wisconsin could be the [Bowl Championship Series] Sugar Bowl,” said the strategist, referring to the college football title game.

Clark will reportedly show more than $12 million raised between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, the most of any candidate with the almost certain exception of Dean.

“Because Clark has the money he potentially ends up as an alternative to Dean because no one else has the money to keep competing,” said an unaligned Democratic consultant.

Edwards’ equation to win the nomination begins and ends with a victory in South Carolina; the North Carolina Senator has built his entire campaign on his ability to reach Southern and more moderate voters.

“We are winning in South Carolina right now and we feel we are in a very good position,” said Rep. Albert Wynn (Md.), an Edwards backer. “We think that there is a tremendous opportunity for this race to change.”

Erin P. Billings contributed to this report.

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