National Public Radio's Morning Edition

March 11, 2003

HEADLINE: Howard Dean's presidential aspirations

BOB EDWARDS, host: The prospect of war has become a big issue for Democratic presidential candidates. Among those candidates well-organized in Iowa, only one, physician and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, is portraying himself as an opponent of the war. His position has given him some early momentum in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson traveled in Iowa with Dean this past weekend, and has this report.

MARA LIASSON reporting: The Iowa caucuses are just about 10 months away and Howard Dean is doing what you do in Iowa at this very early stage. He's traveling from one small town to another, meeting with small groups of committed Democrats, trying to get votes one at a time.

Former Governor HOWARD DEAN: Very nice to come.

Unidentified Woman: And this is Ray Miller(ph).

Mr. DEAN: So does Rosemary(ph) drag you to all the caucuses?

Unidentified Woman: Tries to.

LIASSON: Dean's trademark line is that he represents the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. It's a quote from the late Senator Paul Wellstone, and Dean is comfortable practicing Wellstone's brand of conviction politics.

Mr. DEAN: I think that for too long, Democrats have been afraid to take on the president. We're intimidated by the president's poll ratings. We're intimidated by the right-wing talk show hosts. We need to be very clear that there is nothing that we ought to be ashamed about, about A, being Democrats and B, standing up for the things that we believe in.

LIASSON: Democrats in Washington are making a big mistake, Dean says, when they assume they have to go along with the president's policies because George W. Bush is personally popular.

Mr. DEAN: Well, the war is an example. Here I am the only major Democratic candidate who did not support the president's Iraq resolution. And it's not because I'm afraid to use the power of the military. We have to. Every president has to be willing to do that. But I don't think that Iraq is a threat to the United States. I think it's a third-rate country. We've contained them for 12 years without going to war. But you know what is a threat? Al-Qaeda's a threat and North Korea's a threat.

LIASSON: While the other Democratic candidates in Iowa this weekend were met by anti-war protests and hammered with questions about their support for the president's policy, Dean got bigger-than-expected crowds and standing ovations. Joyce Kranz, who came to ask Dean some questions at the 218 Cafe in Vinton, was typical of Iowa Democrats who were against the war and deeply disturbed by the reaction of people around the world.

Ms. JOYCE KRANZ: They had a poll on TV showing the countries--how much the people are against us. Seventy percent was the lowest. That's too many people to be against us. I mean, nobody is for us. And in the East, do you have people that support the war? Because here in Iowa, I can't say I find very many people who do.

LIASSON: When it comes to foreign policy, Iowans have a long tradition of pacifism and isolationism. Current polls show 85 percent of Iowa Democrats against the war, and among the most committed Democrats, the ones who go to the caucuses, the number is probably even higher. There's not much of a military presence here, few bases or defense plants. In 1991, Iowa's Charles Grassley was one of only two Republican senators to vote against the Gulf War resolution. So it's not surprising that Dean's anti-war stand is helping him win converts, particularly among young people, like Megan Scott(ph) and Brian Tibbetts(ph).

Mr. BRIAN TIBBETTS: Because he's the only person who's standing up for what I believe in, he's not afraid to stand up against everyone else and say what he believes in.

Ms. MEGAN SCOTT: This is the second time I've heard him. We heard him in Iowa City and we drove here to hear him again tonight because I was so impressed with what he had to say.

LIASSON: As for the rest of the Democratic field, Megan Scott says their votes for the war were disappointing.

Ms. SCOTT: I don't know. It just really upset me to see such blind support, which, to me, it seemed like. And so it means a lot that he's willing to stand up and stand up for his beliefs and he's willing to take a risk because it may not be a popular stance in certain parts of the country, but it doesn't seem like he's backing down.

LIASSON: Dean's opposition to the war has become a metaphor for his willingness to stand up to the president. The fact that he was a governor underscores his other theme: that he's an outsider fighting against the Washington establishment. Carol Jensen(ph), a retired nurse who came to here him in Amana, found that appealing.

Ms. CAROL JENSEN: Well, I think he is very straight shooting, but it doesn't hurt that he's outside the Beltway. I think that's a big factor. He hasn't got the political baggage that the other players have. He's basically above it. He's out of the politics of it. He can say these things because nobody's going to come down and take away his committee chairmanship or anything else for this.

LIASSON: Some of Dean's success is due to sheer persistence. This is his 23rd visit to Iowa. He was here 14 times before any other candidate campaigned here. In an interview, Dean acknowledged that the war has opened doors for him and made him a surprisingly viable dark horse in this race.

Mr. DEAN: I think it's given me enormous visibility among Democrats, and I think it's helped me hugely, particularly in Iowa. There are two groups of people who support me because of the war. One are the people who always oppose every war, and in the end I think I probably won't get all of those people. I'll get some of them, but not all of them. But I think I'm going to get a lot of Democrats who appreciate the fact that I stood up early and said this war is the wrong war, and that other folks running shouldn't be supporting it, because they see that I'm also in favor of health insurance, in favor of balancing the budget, in favor of some core Democratic issues that nobody else will stand up for.

LIASSON: What happens if the war is short and successful and the Iraqis embrace their American liberators with open arms? Many analysts think if that happens, no Democrat who opposed the war could beat George W. Bush, let alone convince his party to nominate him. But Dean is not concerned.

Mr. DEAN: I think you almost always win when you stand up for what you believe and take principled stands, and I'm not the least bit apologetic that I think this president's making a mistake, and I think it's a mistake to go in there under almost any circumstances, unless Iraq becomes a direct threat to the United States. Then we have a right to defend ourselves.

LIASSON: Dean's defiance is also directed at those Democratic candidates who voted for the war but now are trying to convince voters they're against it. Steve Kranz, the Democratic chair in Benton County, says Dean's strong stand against the war is attracting many Democrats right now. But in the end, he says, the war will not be the issue that determines the winner of the Iowa caucuses.

Mr. STEVE KRANZ (Democratic Chairman, Benton County): Assuming that the war goes on and is concluded within three or four months, that may not be an issue down the road. So what I'm looking at more are his social policy issues, his domestic issues. Where does he stand on health care? Where does he stand on unemployment? And I think that's, behind the scenes, what more Democrats are looking for.

LIASSON: And many Democrats will be looking for a candidate they believe can win the nomination and the election. Once the war is over, Dean's electability will become more of an issue. Can a former governor from a tiny state who signed a bill granting gay couples the legal benefits of marriage make it to the White House? Dean certainly thinks he can, but he says he is looking forward to getting more attention for his domestic policies, including his plan for universal health coverage. But at a press conference with local reporters in Des Moines this weekend, the questions were all foreign policy.

Mr. DEAN: Does anybody have any interest in talking about the fact that the jobless rate just went up and that I would like to have health insurance for everybody? Or is it all going to be just Iraq, Iraq, Iraq?

LIASSON: The reporters' silence gave Dean his answer. Until the war is over, there is only one issue. But in Iowa right now, that's not so bad for Howard Dean. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Des Moines.

EDWARDS: The time is 29 minutes past the hour.

Copyright 2003 National Public Radio (R)

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