Tension between Dean and Kerry helps recast race for Democrats
By Adam Nagourney
WASHINGTON -- The political fortunes of two New Englanders battling for the Democratic presidential nomination, Howard Dean and John Kerry, have become entangled in a way that has sharpened tension between them and recast the dynamics of the party's presidential competition.
The tension was evident in their edgy exchanges over the Iraq war at the first Democratic debate last week: Dr. Dean, the former governor of Vermont, and Senator Kerry, of Massachusetts, became so animated that three of their colleagues advised them to calm down. Dr. Dean and Mr. Kerry now say they regret, at least to some extent, the way they acted during parts of the forum.
But the early animosity reflects calculations by the two candidates as they compete for many of the same voters and look to what their aides describe as a critical contest in 2004: the primary in a state with which their home states both share a border, New Hampshire.
Beyond that, the clash has offered an insight into the style of two generally liberal Democrats from New England who beyond that could hardly be more different in manner or temperament and who do not seem to like each other very much.
Dr. Dean is a scrappy if diminutive candidate who has commandeered attention with his antiwar platform and sometimes impolitic abandon. Mr. Kerry is a solemn and towering Vietnam war veteran who is given to measured words and nuanced positions as he presents himself as the established front-runner.
Democratic party leaders said a fight like theirs was not helpful for Mr. Kerry, given his presumed stature in the race, and Mr. Kerry and his aides have tried in recent days to ratchet down the volume.
But the attention it has drawn for the underfinanced Dr. Dean may prove to be just what the doctor ordered. And it does not appear to be going away any time soon, in no small part because of Dr. Dean.
Dr. Dean, in an interview, accused the Kerry camp of passing information to reporters intended to besmirch him by highlighting, for example, his assertion that America would not always be the world's dominant power, and the medical draft deferment he invoked during the Vietnam War. He said Mr. Kerry's style was appropriate to the rough school of politics in Massachusetts but might be unseemly elsewhere.
"I was surprised by the personal nature of the attacks," Dr. Dean said, adding: "No one else has done it in this race. I think the rules in Massachusetts for down and dirty politics are different than it is in many other states."
(In fact, as many Democrats noted, Dr. Dean has thrown more elbows than the other candidates, to the point where he had to apologize to one rival, Senator John Edwards, for misrepresenting Mr. Edwards's positions. And even as he complained about Mr. Kerry, Dr. Dean continued to hammer Mr. Kerry's views on the war in Iraq, suggesting that he was a hypocrite and challenging his courage.)
In an interview, Mr. Kerry said he would not respond to Dr. Dean's characterization of his campaign style, though he said he had only raised questions about Dr. Dean's policy statements and responded to accusations he had made. Mr. Kerry added that he regretted spending so much time discussing Dr. Dean at the debate, and in the interview tried to talk about anything else but his rival.
"George asked me a question, and I answered," Mr. Kerry said, referring to the moderator of the ABC News debate, George Stephanopoulos. "I wish I had not, to some degree.
"I'd like to stay focused on President Bush; I'd like to stay focused on the vision I have for improving the country," he continued, with what sounded like chagrin. "I don't talk about any individual candidates in my speeches, anywhere. I've never mentioned other candidates."
That restraint is not entirely shared in Mr. Kerry's camp. In Mr. Kerry's circles, Dr. Dean has become known, not endearingly, by the nickname Ho-Ho. Mr. Kerry's advisers have drawn attention to what they describe as impolitic and contradictory remarks made by Dr. Dean.
Mr. Kerry's campaign manager, Jim Jordan, said: "There's no secret that we think Mr. Dean's rhetoric has been hot and a little bit personal — with a number of Democratic candidates, not just Senator Kerry. I think he has questioned their character in a way that is surprisingly personal, surprisingly early."
Still, many Democrats were struck by how Mr. Kerry kept returning to Dr. Dean in the debate, whether challenging criticism by Dr. Dean of his record on gay rights (Dr. Dean said he was misquoted) or disputing Dr. Dean's record on health care as governor. As a rule, candidates in a strong position seek to stay above the fray, and avoid engagements with lower-tier candidates.
"If I were advising them, I would tell him that he has nothing to gain by doing that," the Rev. Al Sharpton, one of his Democratic rivals, said of Mr. Kerry. "I don't see where he even scores points policy-wise. And certainly, politically, he doesn't gain by arguing with someone who is not a long-term threat."
That view seemed shared by Dr. Dean.
"We thought it would be a tactical error for him to do that," Dr. Dean said, chortling at the memory of the repeated attacks. "I think the exchanges were probably not good for either of us on television, but in the newspapers it was good for me. It got me into the first paragraph of all the articles."
That said, Dr. Dean said he was not glowering at Mr. Kerry, as television shots of the debate made it appear. "I was surprised when I looked at the debate at how grumpy I looked. I think I was just more stressed than I realized."
A large part of the back and forth is taking place with an eye on the New Hampshire primary next January. A loss in the state where both men should presumably have an advantage would hurt Mr. Kerry and Dr. Dean, their aides said.
"New Hampshire is going to be a real dog fight," said Judy Reardon, who is Mr. Kerry's deputy director for northern New England. "Howard Dean, because he's not working, is able to be here more than John Kerry or any of the other candidates."
The initial focus of disagreement between the two men was over the war in Iraq. Mr. Kerry was one of four Democratic presidential candidates who voted in Congress for the Iraq resolution. Dr. Dean opposed it.
But in recent weeks, with the war issue slipping away from him, Dr. Dean has sought to portray Mr. Kerry as supporting President Bush's tax cut, though there actually appears to be only slight differences in the two candidates' views on the issue.
This scrapping, though, is more about trying to maneuver through the field of nine candidates. Dr. Dean, who other than Mr. Sharpton is probably the most media-savvy candidate in the race, clearly realizes that a good way for an underfinanced newcomer to presidential politics to win attention is to pick a fight with a leading candidate.
And to the continued frustration of Mr. Kerry and his advisers, Dr. Dean enjoys the freedom that comes with being someone viewed as unlikely to win. That has given him considerable leeway in saying the kind of things that would get a more established candidate in trouble.
"There's no secret that he has little to lose in the factual accusations that he's made," Mr. Jordan said. "These aren't complaints, this is politics."
The increasingly pitched response by Mr. Kerry's campaign also seems to reflect the fact that Mr. Kerry has surrounded himself with advisers who famously counsel their clients against turning the other cheek. "The basic rule in politics is that you're either on the offensive scoring or on the defensive being scored on," one Democrat close to Mr. Kerry said tonight.
Mr. Kerry said he had no personal animosity toward Dr. Dean. But Democrats outside the campaign, including some in Dr. Dean's camp, suggest that Mr. Kerry's staff might be goading Mr. Kerry along.
"I think they are more tightly wound than we are," said Joe Trippi, Dr. Dean's campaign manager. He stopped and started to laugh as he considered his own words.