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Inside Politics
Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

Howard Dean speaks while campaigning in Hampstead, New Hampshire, on Sunday.
Howard Dean speaks while campaigning in Hampstead, New Hampshire, on Sunday.

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TOLEDO, Ohio (Creators Syndicate) -- For more than 36 hours, endless reruns of the ringworm-cooties inspection of the obviously un-shampooed scalp of Saddam Hussein had dominated the airwaves when 12 Ohio and Michigan voters, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, assembled for a two-hour focus group here.

But the Toledo dozen did not view the capture of Saddam as a defining moment in their own or their nation's life. Their anger at, and disappointment in, the George W. Bush administration's economic policies that, they believe, have left them and their families profoundly worse off than they were under Bill Clinton more than trump the concern about terrorism.

Here in the nation's industrial heartland, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the acknowledged darling of party activists on both coasts, has established a beachhead among blue-collar voters.

The Dean appeal here follows the pattern found elsewhere: Democratic party leaders in 2002, nervous about being tagged as "soft on terrorism," ran a campaign that chose not to stress, but instead to soft-pedal, major differences with President Bush. Republicans, after accusing Democrats of being soft on terrorism, won in 2002.

Howard Dean's 2004 campaign bears no resemblance to his party's 2002 failure. He forcefully emphasizes his -- and a lot of Democrats' -- disagreements with Bush and his administration.

Independent Jannell Ector, 27, who is a Head Start teacher, likes Dean because "he speaks his mind." Ray Mack, a 65-year-old retired nurse and independent, admires the fact that the outsider-turned-front-runner "hasn't backed down one bit. ... He hasn't been devoured by the Washington circle, yet." Other voters spoke of Dean's "energy and enthusiasm" of his being "tenacious" and "aggressive."

While these Ohio-Michigan voters were drawn to Howard Dean's direct, even combative, style, as the evening conducted by respected pollster Peter Hart and sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania revealed, Dean has real distance to go before making the final sale.

That was evident when Hart asked the Toledo dozen which of the Democratic candidates they would choose, irrespective of their own preferences, in different situations.

• "To be your negotiator, to help you get out of a hostage situation, when you are being held unfairly in a foreign prison?" Seven of the voters named retired Gen. Wesley Clark. Karen Walker, 56, a Democrat who works at the Medical College of Ohio, said: "Because he is a West Point graduate. He is a very smart individual. ... I believe he would be good in a foreign country." Factory worker and Democrat, Ron Hamen, 53, chose "Clark, because of his military background. He's probably been trained in situations such as that."

• How about, Hart asks, if "your teen-age child is going abroad for a year. Who do you want to be their guardian whom they live with for that year when they are a foreign exchange student?" Only one respondent named the Vermont doctor. The most frequently chosen surrogate parent was Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. In the judgment of Democrat Jim Waaland, 50, a parole officer: "Lieberman. He has good values, and I like that passed on to my child." Whom did Ray Mack choose? "Lieberman. He just strikes me as someone I can trust."

• Which one of the candidates "do you want negotiating your bank loan?" North Carolina Sen. John Edwards was named most often. For Kim Danzeisen, a 41-year-old social worker and union member, "Edwards. He is a really good trial lawyer, and he won some big cases with big judgments." Karen Walker: "Edwards .He is a self-made man, and I figure he knows how to handle money."

After so many national scandals, conspicuous for discredited leaders who lied without shame, voters hunger for the political leader who will treat them as grown-ups and level with them. There is a nearly audible craving for that rare individual who truly meets the test of "what you see is what you get."

After two-plus hours in Toledo, it became apparent that Howard Dean had impressed Democrats as a man willing, able and even eager to make a strong case against the Republican president and his policies. But they were not sure exactly what the Vermonter is for.

Until he provides a more complete account of himself, voters will not be sold on Howard Dean to be their hostage negotiator, their child's guardian or their president.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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