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Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

Howard Dean's trick

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WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- The reaction of the Democratic Party establishment to former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's raising more money during the second quarter of the year than any of his eight rivals for the party's presidential nomination reminds me of the legendary Theodore White's memorable report of the scene in the Boston Garden during John F. Kennedy's last campaign rally on the eve of the 1960 presidential election.

JFK, according to White, was surrounded on the stage by a " covey of the puffy, pink-faced, predatory-lipped politicians who had so dominated Massachusetts politics before he had taken over." Noting their "envious faces" as the candidate spoke, Richard Donahue, a Kennedy aide observed: "You know they can't understand this. They think he has a trick. They're listening to him because they think if they learn the trick, they can be president, too."

To listen to experienced and able politicians in the campaigns of Dean's Democratic rivals this week was to hear men searching for the "trick" that had transformed the under-funded underdog into the well-heeled contender. Most were sure they had found Dean's gimmick: It was his mastery of the Internet. The Vermonter has used the Web effectively to recruit contributors and supporters.

It's true that the Dean campaign's Web site is well-designed and welcoming to visitors. But to credit the Internet with Howard Dean's surge makes about as much sense as much-earlier Republicans who convinced themselves that FDR was politically unbeatable because "he was so terrific on radio," just as Democrats were, later, certain that Ronald Reagan's enormous popularity was because he "was so terrific on TV."

In each case, the opposition's solution was identical. Republicans "only" had to find a candidate who was as good on radio as FDR, and Democrats had "simply" to locate the Gipper's equal on the tube.

Make no mistake about it. It is not the medium -- radio, TV or the Internet -- which enlists and converts voters to a cause. It is the message -- what the candidate stands for and communicates -- that touches and moves voters.

At a time when a large chunk of the Democratic Party membership was strongly opposed to President George W. Bush and his advocacy of a pre-emptive U.S. war against Iraq, the leadership of the Democratic Party -- especially "first-tier" presidential candidates Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina, along with Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri -- stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Republican president. Howard Dean spoke to -- and for -- the millions of Democrats who were against that war.

That is message! Now, when the most recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll asks, "All in all, do you think the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over or not?" and a growing 42 percent of Americans answer, "No," it is understandable why, to more than a few Democrats, Dean looks to be wise, as well as brave.

This new reality has not been lost on Kerry, Gephardt and Lieberman. When President Bush used Texas tough-guy talk -- "Bring them on" -- as a challenge to Iraqi guerillas who have been attacking U.S. troops, Gephardt offered this message to Bush: "Enough of this, phony, macho rhetoric. ... (No) more shoot-from-the-hip one-liners."

Kerry faulted Bush as well: "The deteriorating situation in Iraq requires less swagger and more thoughtfulness and statesmanship." Lieberman's published criticism will reportedly focus on the administration's failed postwar policies.

All three Democrats seek political daylight between themselves and George W. Bush, who more than two months ago on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, declared that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended."

"There are two things that are important in politics," said the maker of Republican presidents, Mark Hanna. "The first is money, and I can't remember what the second one is."

Still, as recently as 1996, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, a prodigious fund-raiser, collected more than $20 million, yet never even made it to the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary.

His early success at fund raising is no guarantee that Howard Dean will be a serious candidate in New Hampshire next January. But Dean used no tricks nor gimmicks to collect those contributions. His opponents better understand: It was his message.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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