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Inside Politics
The Morning Grind / DayAhead

Howard Dean, 'ho hum' front-runner?

By John Mercurio
CNN Political Unit

Dance of the Democrats: Bill Bradley and Howard Dean share the applause Tuesday morning during the endorsement announcement.
Dance of the Democrats: Bill Bradley and Howard Dean share the applause Tuesday morning during the endorsement announcement.

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Tuesday, January 13: District of Columbia primary

Monday, January 19: Iowa Caucuses

Tuesday, January 27: New Hampshire primary

When is your primary? For more key dates in the 2004 election season, see our special America Votes 2004 Election Calendar
Morning Grind
Howard Dean
Bill Bradley
Tom Harkin

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Political insiders greeted the news that Bill Bradley would endorse Howard Dean today with a collective "whatever." And that may be very good news for Dean.

Maybe we cared more about Al Gore's endorsement because he served as VP, not just as senator. Or because Gore, not Bradley, actually won the nomination in 2000. Maybe we're less surprised today because half of Bradley's '00 aides now work for Dean -- and the other half want to. The Democrats do share a focus, after all, on health-care reform and a base of better-schooled, higher-income voters. (Bradley endorses Dean)

Or perhaps we were just worn down by the number of giddy e-mails Dean aides fired off yesterday (not one or two, try six) taunting us with promises of a "special guest" accompanying Dean today in New Hampshire and Iowa.

But here's another plausible theory on why The Washington Post ran the Bradley story on Page 4, as opposed to the A1 treatment Gore received: Dean has established himself as such an indisputable front-runner at this point, and has run such a shockingly successful campaign, that we're numb. He can surprise us no more.

No one raised an eyebrow last week when Dean reported that he'll raise more than $15 million during the fourth quarter of 2003 (and few will be surprised when, on January 15, he reports collecting far more). No one disputes recent national polls that show Dean with soaring leads over his nearest competitors. (Poll: Dean starts 2004 leading Dems)

There's still one last chance for political drama, and it could come later this week. Sources tell the Grind that Sen. Tom Harkin, the most popular and influential Democrat in Iowa, will announce whether he'll endorse a presidential candidate, perhaps as soon as Wednesday. Harkin will endorse either Dean or Dick Gephardt.

We still cling to the notion that someone could emerge from the 2004 scrum -- Dick Gephardt, Wesley Clark or, perhaps, John Kerry -- as the consensus challenger to the former governor. But Dean is doing more each day to discredit that notion than his foes are doing to reinforce it.

Not that they aren't trying.

Kerry aides yesterday highlighted a series of policy initiatives the Senator is unveiling this week, including a comprehensive new plan to expand opportunities for the disabled. "You can talk about endorsements all you want, but that's not going to help anyone in a wheelchair get a job," said Kerry spokesman David DiMartino told the Grind. "John Kerry's trying to help people, and all Howard Dean is doing is flying around the country picking up endorsements from Washington insiders that he decries all the time." (Kerry proposes tax credit for creating jobs)

Asked by reporters following him yesterday in Iowa, Dick Gephardt had this to say about endorsements: "All of these endorsements are useful and we'd all like to be endorsed by everybody, but I'll say again, Iowans are independent. They don't really listen to anybody, they make their own judgment, and they make their own choice of who they want to vote for.

"And so you know, I would have preferred to have Bill Bradley's endorsement, I would have loved to have had Al Gore's endorsement, I would like to have everybody's endorsement. But in the end, it isn't endorsements that will win this. It is the people's vote. And these folks here are very independent, and they make their own judgment of who they want to vote for."

Embargo in Fargo

For his part, Dean broke his own embargo on the Bradley news yesterday in Fargo, North Dakota.

"I'm probably not supposed to say this, but last month Al Gore endorsed me. Tomorrow morning, there's a news story out that I won't comment on that Bill Bradley is going to endorse me,'' Dean said at a town hall meeting.

"If there's a candidate in the Democratic Party that can bring together the two candidates for president the last time, that fought like crazy, maybe we're not the weakest candidate,'' he added."Maybe we are the strongest candidate and the only one that can unite all the Democrats around the country who get disappointed in Democrats in Washington.''

As the only candidate currently able to project more than one message per day, Dean's campaign will also air a new TV ad today in Iowa, which will hit unnamed '04 Dem rivals for backing President Bush on the Iraq war and on tax cuts.

"When some Democrats were supporting the war and defending Bush tax cuts, one candidate for president stood up to George Bush," a narrator says in the 30-second ad. "Howard Dean opposed the war. He'll repeal the Bush tax cuts to provide health insurance for every American and take on the corporate special interests in Washington."

"It's not enough to change presidents," Dean then says to the camera. "We have to change the way Washington works -- stand up to the lobbyists and the special interests and make government work for people again."

Wesley Clark will begin airing ads in Wisconsin today in what would be the biggest purchase of TV time in the state by an '04 Dem. Clark joins Dean as the only Democrats who are running ads in Wisconsin. An aide said the 60-second ad, a bio-spot, would air in Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, La Crosee and Wausau. Clark plans to remain on the air continuously until the state's February 17 primary, either with this spot or another in their rotation.

The ad buy will boost the already considerable sum Clark has spent on TV ads. Since entering the '04 race in September, the relatively unknown general has spent $4.7 million on TV ads, about 40 percent of the $18.7 million he has raised since then.

Conference call-offs

For a great example of why campaigns should hold fewer conference calls, check out today's Arizona Republic, which has great details of a Dean call that aides mistakenly invited reporters to listen to. Campaign aides discussed the Bradley endorsement. A link to the full article is below, but here's the nutshell:

"Tomorrow, (Tuesday) we're going to start by having Bradley do sort of a subtle thing, if we can, by saying that Dean is a real Democrat, and then follow that up the next day with an in-state person that's probably a little more direct," one unidentified staffer said, according to the newspaper's report.

Another staffer indicated that in a survey of voters Monday by telephone, people expressed concern that "this guy (Dean) is indecisive" and Bradley, a former Hall of Fame player in the National Basketball Association and a three-term senator from New Jersey, could help counter that.

"The Bradley message could be, like, (Dean) knew where he stood on the war, is still a Democrat, takes . . . positions, blah, blah, blah," the staffer said.

The next day, the speaker said, "surrogates" for Dean, both local and national, could "then hit Clark on the flip side of the argument: that he's indecisive, didn't know what party he's with, doesn't know his position on the war," she said.

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