House’s Dean Backers Not Ready to Jump Ship

Posted February 4, 2004 at 6:09pm

Congressional backers of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) insisted Wednesday that they will not abandon his presidential candidacy even after he failed to win any of the first nine nominating contests.

“I have never heard any of the Members say they wish they hadn’t endorsed,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), the first House Democrat to publicly support Dean’s campaign.

Those assertions came amid stepped-up efforts by Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic frontrunner, and Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) to convince Dean backers to switch allegiances.

“This is the time to be aggressive about signing people up,” said Kerry Deputy Campaign Manager Steve Elmendorf, who convened a meeting Wednesday of 10 undecided Members on the Hill, the second such gathering in as many weeks.

“We think this could be a delegate war and since every Member is a delegate we want to sign up as many of them as possible,” Elmendorf added.

He said the campaign was focusing its efforts on undecided Members as well as former backers of Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), who both dropped out of the contest.

That strategy mirrors the one being employed by Edwards, said Rep. Albert Wynn (Md.), a supporter of the North Carolina Senator.

“We are talking to some people that were with Gephardt and some people who are reassessing their support for Dean,” said Wynn, although he declined to name names.

The attempts to peel institutional support from Dean come as the former frontrunner seeks to keep his campaign alive despite being shut out of the nine primaries and caucuses held through Feb. 3.

Although his campaign has faltered, Dean still holds the second most Member endorsements in the race with 37. Kerry leads the pack with 43.

Dean pledged even before Tuesday’s votes to continue his campaign through Saturday’s Michigan and Washington caucuses and next Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary.

Lofgren said that Dean’s Member endorsers met Tuesday — as they do each week — to discuss strategy with the governor’s campaign staff.

She said Members made a variety of suggestions but there was no talk of backing away from Dean.

“Obviously we would rather have won, but people realize this is a marathon not a sprint,” said Lofgren. “People are going to roll up their sleeves and work hard.”

Dean campaign manager Roy Neel echoed that sentiment in a statement Wednesday, noting that only 10 percent of convention delegates have been awarded, and adding “it’s way too early for a coronation of the candidate who has taken in more special interest money than any other candidate.”

That is a not-so-veiled shot at Kerry, whom Dean has repeatedly attacked in the past week for his acceptance of contributions from registered lobbyists.

Attacks from Dean or any of the other presidential candidates have done little to slow Kerry’s momentum.

He won resounding victories in Missouri, Arizona, Delaware, New Mexico and North Dakota.

In Oklahoma, Kerry placed a close third behind retired Gen. Wesley Clark and Edwards, while in South Carolina Edwards took a 15-point victory over the Massachusetts Democrat.

Members supporting both Clark and Edwards sought to spin their lone wins as evidence they are in the ever-narrowing group of candidates that can emerge as an alternative to Kerry.

Clark’s victory “energized him and the people close to him,” said Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.), a leading advocate for the general on Capitol Hill. “They are excited about what we have coming up next week.”

Both Tennessee and Virginia will hold primaries Feb. 10; Clark, with his military background and Arkansas roots, is expected to do well in both.

It is unclear whether his campaign will possess the resources or wherewithal to compete in Saturday’s contests, where Kerry, Edwards and Dean are all making a strong push.

Trailing Kerry badly in the latest Michigan polls, Edwards’ campaign received a major shot in the arm Wednesday when former House Minority Whip David Bonior (Mich.) endorsed the North Carolina Senator.

Bonior, who was a strong backer of Gephardt, has close ties to organized labor, one of the key voting blocs in Michigan.

Wynn said that Edwards performance so far has shown that “his viability is beyond question.”

Wynn, however, added that he does not expect Members to abandon candidates still in the race or who have recently dropped out in order to rally around Edwards.

“A lot of people if they have been with someone else who is now not viable are taking a ‘wait and look’ attitude,” said Wynn. “I don’t sense that people are leaping to make decisions.”