Sunday, May 11, 2003
A Vermont Yankee in the Conservatives' Court http://greenvilleonline.com/news/2003/05/11/200305116199.htm
Just moments before he was set to deliver a big speech to the South Carolina Democratic Convention, presidential candidate Howard Dean had to make a choice: He could be blunt or he could be careful.
He chose blunt.
Ignoring his advisers' last-minute pleas to tone down his antiwar stance, the former Vermont governor insisted on bringing up his opposition to the Iraq war in a state known for its support of President Bush, its abundance of veterans and its fierce patriotism. As Dean stepped onto the stage before hundreds of delegates at the South Carolina fairgrounds, the first words out of his mouth were, "Most of you know I did not support the war in Iraq."
His aides winced. But the moment passed quickly — without a single boo — and by the time Dean finished his stump speech calling for economic development, universal health care and racial unity, the crowd was on its feet clapping.
"It's time to inject some backbone into our party," Dean urged the delegates before wading into the crowd to shake hands and pose for snapshots as his supporters chanted "How-ard Dean! How-ard Dean!"
For Dean, it was confirmation of his belief that he can appeal to voters by taking on issues — the war, race relations, gay rights — that most of his eight opponents for the Democratic nomination are hesitant to touch. The question for Dean is whether his blunt Northern liberalism will win him respect or cost him votes in the South, where Democratic primary voters tend to be moderate and general election voters favor Republicans. He's hoping to win in part by focusing his appeal on black voters, who make up nearly half of Democratic primary voters in South Carolina.
"I think what's at stake here is the soul of the Democratic Party," said Dean, a 54-year-old physician. "We've got to stop being afraid of the president's poll ratings and stand up to him."
It's a message that appeals to voters such as Farrel Brandin, a self-described liberal and retired museum curator from Winnsboro.
"He doesn't sweep things under the rug," said Brandin, who attended the convention with her husband, August, a retired engineer. "He says what he thinks even when it's not politically correct."
Dean's trademark outspokenness — delivered in a New York native's rapid-fire cadence — has proved more popular in the South than most political pundits would have predicted, said Dick Harpootlian, an attorney who just retired as chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party.
"Howard Dean has been the biggest surprise — he's on fire here," Harpootlian said. "I get calls about him every day. People find him charismatic. He's got some real action going."
Still, no one outside of Dean's campaign is predicting that the Vermont Yankee can win in Dixie. A South Carolina poll taken by the American Research Group just prior to Dean's May 2-4 trip to the state showed Dean running a distant sixth in a field of nine. Dean was favored by just 2 percent of voters. In contrast, he is running neck-and-neck with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in New Hampshire, according to several recent polls.
"If I was Howard Dean, I'd pick another state besides South Carolina," said Merle Black, professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta and co-author of "The Rise of Southern Republicans." "There are some pockets of really liberal voters in South Carolina, but not enough. ... He should go check out the Arizona primary instead."
Even some South Carolina voters who support Dean worry that his antiwar sentiments and support of gay rights, affirmative action, environmental protection regulations and tax-cut rollbacks will cost him votes here in the Feb. 3 primary.
South Carolina college student Steven Hamilton backs Dean for showing guts by championing the cause of gay rights in the Bible Belt. Hamilton also thinks Dean will lose the South for that very reason.
As Vermont governor, Dean signed the nation's only civil unions law, which grants most of the legal rights of marriage to same-sex couples.
"I think it's amazing that a liberal Northerner would come down here and say what he's been saying," said Hamilton, a 21-year-old student of international relations at the University of South Carolina. "I think it's very admirable. ... But, realistically, he's not going to win in the South."
"I think the white vote is going to be very difficult for him to get," said Hamilton, who is black. "And the black community here is very traditional. Homosexuality is very controversial. So I think that could set him back with the black vote a little bit."
But Dean is betting his populist message of job growth and health-care coverage for all will appeal to both black voters and rural whites in a state where unemployment has risen above 6 percent and more than 12 percent of residents have no health insurance.
And he says voters who get to know him will find out his liberal social views are balanced by opposition to strict gun control laws and a fiscal conservatism that prizes balanced budgets, reduced deficits and help for small-business owners.
"When I talk about civil unions as an issue of equal rights, equal opportunity for all, it's the end of the discussion for most African-American voters. They get it," Dean said in an interview with Gannett News Service on the way to meet members of a black gospel choir. "Rural white voters will be difficult ... but if they have to choose between (their opposition to) civil unions and health insurance for their kids, they'll pick health insurance for their kids."
Dean, who for 11 years governed a state with almost no black residents, has put his South Carolina campaign in the hands of black leaders and is aggressively courting black voters, who are crucial to a Dean victory. He has come out strongly in favor of affirmative action and has chastised President Bush for referring to affirmative action programs as "quotas."
"When I met Governor Dean, it became very clear that he was definitely the real deal," said state Rep. David Mack III, the incoming chairman of the South Carolina Legislature's Black Caucus and the chairman of Dean's South Carolina campaign. "I think folks like his style. They like that straightforward, look-in-the-camera-and-tell-people-exactly-what-you-think approach."
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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.