WASHINGTON — Barring some sort of apocalyptic political occurrence, the Democratic presidential nomination probably will be decided within the next few weeks, just what the party's chairman, Terry McAuliffe, had in mind when he front-loaded the primary process to produce an early conclusion. But in typical "be careful what you wish for" fashion, a growing number of party leaders are expressing concern about the wisdom of the policy particularly given the probable outcome.
What worries them is that the most likely winner, Howard Dean, is a nominee along the lines of 1972's Democratic model, George McGovern — a candidate so far out of the mainstream that he managed to carry only one state against Richard Nixon, hardly the most popular president in the 20th century. That feeling has blossomed considerably since Dean refused to acknowledge that there was any safety benefit in the capture of Saddam Hussein, startling even his allies.
Adding to the consternation of old line Democrats are polls showing that George W. Bush's approval rating is back on the rise; that the economy is rebounding nicely; that most Americans still believe the Iraq War was a necessity, and that in a head to head match, the president beats Dean handily. While elections are won in November and not in the preceding January, the incumbent will go into the campaign with a solid base of support that validates the old adage that the election is his to lose.
There is, of course, another troubling aspect to a Dean nomination aside from the fact that he is woefully inexperienced in both domestic and foreign matters despite being a former Vermont governor. That is the bitterness his campaign has caused among the other candidates who spent far more time hacking away at him than in attacking the Bush administration or putting forth their own agendas.
While Democrats publicly discount the notion that these assaults on the front-runner will cause problems beyond the primaries, longtime observers believe the fight for the nomination not only has been divisive, it has provided Republicans with a blueprint for running against Dean.
The anger of the more experienced candidates, heightened by the endorsement of Dean by their former colleague, Al Gore, is not going to be overcome easily, even though the party's national pep rally in July in Boston will put a sheen of unified support on the nomination. Reps. Richard Gephardt and Dennis Kucinich and Sens. John Kerry, Joseph Lieberman, and John Edwards are particularly disdainful of Dean, whom they regard as irresponsible and unqualified to handle the complex problems of the day.
The polls also are showing that despite the televised debates and incessant coverage by the national media, none of the Democratic candidates, including Dean, are registering with voters who have other, more personal concerns and also seem to be bored by the process. That will change in the next two months, as the rest of the field folds (only Dean and Kerry have the money to sustain long campaigns, and Kerry is thought to be too far behind to catch up) and Dean becomes the official nominee in waiting.
When they truly begin to focus on Dean, they will find a Mayflower doctor from Yale with a silver spoon pedigree that exceeds Bush's and a penchant for being at times both disagreeable and person who shoots from the hip. His appeal has been to those disaffected Democrats who believe the party's representatives in Washington have been far too compliant with the Bush administration and the congressional Republican majority. In short, he is the classic anti-Washington candidate who, in this case, leans toward the left wing of the party. It will be interesting to see how his base of youthful liberals reacts when he moves toward the center and on some issues even more to the right, which he clearly will have to do if he hopes to have any chance.
The Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary probably will put Dean too far out front for the others to reach. The hopes of most of them seem to rest with South Carolina, whose primary reflects a Democratic base more representative of the party's broad spectrum. But that is probably wishful thinking.
The games officially begin with the New Year and in this volatile world of security alerts and nuclear proliferation and a dozen other foreign and domestic crises to face, anything could happen and probably will. But it is hard to ignore the concerns of Democratic gray beards that the worm the early bird gets in this case might be poisonous to their party.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.