As he travels the country pursuing his "50 state strategy" to expand the rolls of Democratic voters, Howard Dean has a tricky task. Everywhere he goes he has to answer questions about the bitterly contested Democratic primary. While trying to pump up enthusiasm among Democrats, he is dealing with their growing anxiety about the antipathy between the Clinton and Obama camps. What is he going to do, people want to know, to avert a train wreck that will destroy his party's chances in the fall?
With no clear winner emerging and the campaign turning ugly, the Dems are bogged down in battles over how to decide the nomination, while John McCain cruises, unopposed, into the general election.
As head of the DNC, Dean helped get the Dems into this jam, by imposing the penalties on Michigan and Florida that disqualified their votes as punishment for holding early primaries. No one knows for sure how he will untangle the resulting mess.
But Dean is also uniquely well suited to end the impasse, says Barbara Lawton, the lieutenant governor of Wisconsin and a Hillary supporter, because he knows what it's like to be a Presidential candidate.
At a rally in Madison on Tuesday, Lawton introduced Dean and told a Democratic audience that "he is going to need the wisdom of Solomon" to deal with the nomination disaster, but "no one is better positioned to take us through this awkward and difficult and sometimes uncertain territory." Dean, like no one else, can handle the candidates' egos and can grasp how hard it is to quit the race, Lawton said, expanding on her introductory remarks, because he's been there.
So what about the intimations, most recently from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, that Dean has a secret plan to end the war between Clinton and Obama?
(Reid told the Las Vegas Review Journal, rather cryptically: "I had a conversation with Governor Dean today. Things are being done.")
Lawton, who has been in on talks with the party leadership, says her sense is "the process isn't over."
"There are still states that have primaries and caucuses queued up and voters who are anxious to have their say and we will then add it up," she said. "We may have to add some things we haven't planned on, too."
Dean told his audience in Madison only that he doesn't know who the nominee will be, but "we are going to win because the American people want change."
"The only way John McCain wins is if we are divided," he said, and went on to urge Democrats to pull together. "It's getting to be a rough campaign," he said, "but not as rough as some people might think." (In other words, neither Clinton nor Obama has had to endure the equivalent of Dean's endlessly replayed "scream" speech.)
"If you don't think the RNC was going to get out all that stuff on both sides that's been on TV in the last couple of weeks, you are mistaken," he added.
He urged his audience to join the DNC's grassroots, get-out-the-vote effort. "You, in your neighborhood, are far more powerful than Rush Limbaugh or . . . merchants of hate in rightwing radio," he said, citing statistics that showed that neighbor-to-neighbor contact led to a 12 percent jump in voting, compared with 1.5 percent for media and direct mail campaigns.
Democrats are the party of the future and of young people, who, polls show, are not nearly as divided by race or as susceptible to ethnic pandering as their parents, Dean said.
"When you look at the candidates on our side . . . people under 34 said, 'That looks like us.' When they looked at the Republican candidates they saw 1950s television."
While young Americans perceive themselves as members of a multiethnic society, Dean said, the Republicans "have systematically scapegoated and insulted every ethnic group."
He played up the similarities between Clinton and Obama on Iraq, health care, and the economy, and built to a rousing crescendo bashing McCain and Bush on those issues.
But as if to show that unity on the left is not so easy to find, a protester popped up next to the stage, holding up a hand-painted sign that said "9-11 was an inside job."
"Well, I don't agree with that." Dean said.
The audience, distracted, watched as the young man was hurried out of the room. Dean made a stab at picking up where he'd left off in his speech. The kid yelled from the lobby, "Don't tase me, bro!"
Dean laughed, and gave up. "I was waiting for that one," he said. "Don't tase the American people--get out and vote for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton."
Then he made an awkward exit, jumping off the front of the stage.