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Can Dean Survive ‘Krakatoa Moment’ In Des Moines?

Maybe Howard Dean can survive his disastrous public meltdown Monday night, but to do so he’ll have to grow a new persona fast. That’s not easy. [IMGCAP(1)]

Dean’s snarling rant in Des Moines, coming after he placed third in the Iowa caucuses, did what famous, fatal gaffes of the past have always done: confirm for all the world to see what had previously been the disputed “rap” on a politician’s character.

Dean’s display was on a par with the discovery that Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) was promiscuous, with Sen. Ed Muskie (D-Maine) crying under attack, with Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s megalomaniacal declaration that the Reagan White House was under his control, and with George Romney’s admission that he’d been “brainwashed” in South Vietnam.

It’s also on a par with any number of public misdeeds by candidate/President Bill Clinton — Gennifer Flowers, the Lincoln Bedroom, Monica Lewinski — which prove that such things can be overcome.

Dean evidently plans to campaign in New Hampshire as the successful former governor of a neighboring state, the man who balanced budgets and provided all Vermont children with health insurance.

If he behaves himself and learns to be cool, maybe he can be another “comeback kid,” like Kerry in Iowa. But the fact is, he is hot under the collar and Iowa voters decided that he wasn’t “presidential.” His performance Monday night seemed to confirm that judgment.

Iowa voters were not persuaded by a bevy of endorsements — including that of their own Sen. Tom Harkin (D) — or by polls or the predictions of pundits (including me) based on his supposedly unbeatable organization.

Dean obviously didn’t help himself, either, by dismissing Saddam Hussein’s capture, discovering a deep Christian faith just in time to campaign in the South and his penchant for negative campaigning against his rivals.

Moreover, Dean had neglected to make any new policy proposals for months and seemed to be resting on the cushion of his frontrunnerhood in the polls and fundraising.

The Iowa winners — Sens. John Kerry (Mass.) and John Edwards (N.C.) — came out as the anti-Deans. Kerry was the adult. Edwards was positive and inspirational.

Adulthood, experience, guts and genuine dedication were not enough, however, to save Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), who was dismissed by Iowans as “yesterday’s man.”

I had an inkling Gephardt was doomed when he delivered his impassioned speech Saturday night at the VFW Hall in Ottumwa, a meatpacking and farm-implement industrial town.

The hall was filled with smoke and reeked of beer. Only 100 or so people showed up to hear the candidate. Another 25 or so stayed in an adjoining bar nursing their drinks. Those who listened were salt-of-the-earth working folks, but their hair was invariably gray or silver-blue.

And Gephardt’s message, while utterly sincere and filled with heart, was also anachronistic. It recalled William Jennings Bryan, who in the 1890s vainly tried to defend America’s fading agrarian economy against the industrial one.

Gephardt similarly defended the old industrial economy against an inevitable global technology economy. He legitimately, urgently declared health insurance and trade to be deeply moral issues — but his answers were to increase taxes on everyone to pay for the first and cut America off from world markets to deal with the second.

The Iowa winners were the candidates who wanted to repeal President Bush’s tax cuts for upper-income Americans, not the middle class.

But they are also running as class-warfare populists, borrowing the “people vs. the powerful” theme of Al Gore’s 2000 campaign.

Edwards, in response to Bush’s assessment that the “state of our union is strong,” responded that “the state of George Bush’s union — the union of Washington lobbyists, special interests and his CEO friends — is doing just fine. They get what they want, whenever they want.”

“But in our America, the union for working Americans is a struggle every single day,” he said. Edwards delivers his message with charm and verve, but while he claims that he never takes money from lobbyists or political action committees, he neglects to mention that his biggest financial source is his fellow trial lawyers, one of America’s foremost “special interests.”

Kerry similarly asserts he’s running “to free our government from the grip of lobbyists, the drug companies, big oil and the HMOs,” though his best line is that he wants to restore fairness “so that instead of Americans working for the economy, the economy works for them.”

Both Kerry and Edwards are basing their campaigns heavily on the bet that most Americans see Bush as too close to corporations and not concerned enough about their welfare.

Polls do confirm that a majority of Americans share such attitudes. An ABC/Washington Post poll showed that by 56 percent to 43 percent, voters doubt that Bush “understands the problems of people like you.”

The liberal Democracy Corps’ poll showed that by 56 percent to 38 percent, voters believe Bush is “president for the oil companies” and that, by 52-43, he “always does what the corporate special interests want.”

On the other hand, when Democracy Corps asked voters whether Bush “is a patriot who works for the whole country,” 51 percent said yes, as opposed to 47 percent who said he “almost always favors the corporate special interests rather than what’s good for the country.”

As of Wednesday morning, tracking polls in New Hampshire hadn’t caught the full impact of the Iowa results and the endless television replaying of Dean’s Krakatoa moment.

However, Tuesday polling did show Kerry in a virtual tie with Dean for the lead and running ahead of retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who had his own bad moment late Monday.

On CNN’s “Larry King Live,” Clark went into a tirade in an exchange with former GOP Sen. Bob Dole (Kan.), another war hero like Kerry and Clark himself.

Clark said, “I’m the only person in this race who has ever done foreign policy. … It’s like major league baseball. … I pitch a 95 mile-an-hour fastball. I’ve negotiated peace agreements. I’ve won a war. … I’m not worried about John Kerry or anyone else.”

When Dole — a former enlisted man — suggested that, in terms of political experience, Kerry was a general and Clark a colonel, Clark burst back that “Kerry’s a lieutenant and I’m a general. You’ve got to get your facts on this. He was a lieutenant in Vietnam. I’ve done all the big leadership.”

As one Democratic pro said, Clark “all but rolled marbles in his hand.” The next thing to watch for after Dean’s self-inflicted wound is Gen. Clark exposing himself as Capt. Queeg.

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