A rival quietly makes inroads
By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
MIAMI -- For Howard Dean, the obscure former Vermont governor emerging as a wild card contender in the Democratic presidential race, drumming up Florida support might seem far-fetched.
This, after all, is Graham country.
U.S. Sen. Bob Graham already has raised $1-million without holding a single fundraiser, and his executive experience in this mega-state makes Dean's look puny by comparison.
Dean might be the rare Democratic candidate who opposes the now nearly won war in Iraq -- a popular stance among many Democratic activists -- but so does Graham.
So how does this 54-year-old doctor from a state less populated than Pinellas County campaign in South Florida, Graham's home base?
By saying only flattering things when asked about Graham and using the same bluntness he uses everywhere else. Nothing better to excite activists tired of party leaders they see as too timid about challenging President Bush's agenda:
-- The president, Dean told assorted private gatherings in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties last week, is "heading this country toward bankruptcy" with his deficit spending.
-- Bush's conservatism is "scarier than Ronald Reagan's," and his foreign policy amounts to, 'Do what I say or I'll see you afterward in the parking lot."'
-- America's gas-guzzling energy policy involves "sending our money to the Saudis, who use it to fund Hamas, which uses it to blow up children."
-- Congressional Democrats shouldn't be crowing over shrinking Bush's planned tax cut to $350-billion. "The truth is, we can't afford any tax cut at this time."
Dean is largely unknown in Florida. He has visited the state at least five times since 2001, mostly for low-key speeches or the kind of private fundraising he did last week.
At the posh Mar-Lago club in Palm Beach, many in the crowd of 130 people -- some avid "Deany-bopper" supporters, others merely curious -- nodded in agreement with the insurgent candidate, who was a practicing internist until becoming governor in 1991.
"Here's somebody who is speaking out straight and clear. He's not somebody worried about being politically correct and offending this group or that group," said Cynthia Friedman, a Democratic fundraiser who splits her time between Palm Beach and Chevy Chase, Md.
And Bob Graham?
"Bob Graham is a very accomplished person, but to be honest with you, I'm much more excited about a younger, vigorous man who is speaking out more directly," Friedman said. "We need leadership like that."
Dean is an unimposing 5-foot-9 with gray-black hair and is usually seen in dark suits and sensible loafers.
He is often compared to fictional president and fellow former New England governor Jed Bartlet from TV's West Wing (whose lead actor Martin Sheen backs Dean). But where Bartlet is erudite, Dean is brash.
His bluntness has stirred whispers from other campaigns that the guy can be a glib, arrogant jerk.
"I wouldn't be capable of that, I'm sure," he said with a grin, while driving toward Miami. He allowed, though, that his background as a doctor at times might make him more brusque and less patient than he should be.
That, he understands fully, is precisely what's winning him support.
"He's the only Democrat really speaking out on the issues," said Miami lawyer and former FBI agent Jim McDonald, who hosted a reception for Dean. "The congressional Democrats have all been just co-opted by the president, and I see this country going in the wrong direction, to say the least."
Dean is generally seen as a long shot in the crowded Democratic primary, but he is no longer widely dismissed.
A recent poll showed him tied for first place in New Hampshire with U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
He has raised $2.6-million this year, far less than the more than $7-million raised by Sens. Kerry and John Edwards of North Carolina, but well more than most people expected. Some $750,000 was raised over the Internet, where Dean has a wide network of supporters.
His directness and knack for sound bites have made him stand out at periodic cattle calls for the Democrats.
His early and vocal opposition to the war (and willingness to accuse other Democrats of waffling on the subject) has endeared him to party activists, who tend to be more liberal.
"As I travel around the country, I find Democrats are almost as mad at the Democrats as they are at the Republicans. The reason is they feel there's nobody making a case for the things we really believe," Dean said in a rental car whizzing down Interstate 95. "This president is not popular because of his policies. People like him because he speaks very directly and he gives a clear and unambiguous message and is clear about who he is."
It is not so easy clearly defining Dean, who in many respects seems an unlikely darling for liberal Democratic activists.
Until his vocal antiwar stance gained him traction -- like Graham, he says America faced greater threats and national security priorities than Saddam Hussein -- he sounded like the staunchest fiscal conservative of the bunch. He is a deficit hawk, earned an "A" from the National Rifle Association and antagonized enough Vermont liberals that the Progressive Party there fielded a candidate who won 10 percent of the vote in Dean's last governor's race.
He's a blue-blood Park Avenue/Hamptons product (Bush's grandmother was a bridesmaid for Dean's grandmother) who graduated from Yale. His home state is overwhelmingly white and rural. Dean jokes that the only victims of drive-by shootings in Vermont are deer.
But while cutting taxes and reducing debt, he also produced a progressive record on social issues.
"Social justice," he likes to say, "cannot be attained without strong fiscal management."
As governor, Dean expanded health coverage to virtually everyone younger than 18. As president, he would push universal health care, and says he would fund it by rolling back Bush's tax cuts.
In Vermont, he signed the nation's first law legalizing same-sex unions, which at the time had the backing of just 35 percent of Vermont residents.
"How could you write off people's civil rights because it's politically unpopular? I never even considered that," Dean said, acknowledging the conservatives would try to hang Vermont's civil union law around his neck in a general election.
In Graham-dominated Florida, the civil union law has given Dean a modest fundraising niche among gay Floridians.
Among several recent Florida fundraisers, he collected about $25,000 from a largely gay crowd at the Miami home of party promoter Jeffrey Sanker.
He's also making some inroads with some of Florida's most elite Democratic donors. He emerged beaming last weekend from a private meeting at the Palm Beach home of S. Daniel Abraham, the founder of Slim Fast, who personally and through his companies gave more than $1-million to the Democratic Party in the 2000 election cycle.
"I like his economic policies, I love him as a candidate," Abraham said. "I very strongly support him."
Dean's profile rose dramatically because of his vocal antiwar stance, but that's hardly a popular position outside of liberal Democratic circles. Polls consistently show overwhelming support for the war.
Ultimately, Dean predicts, the economy will dominate the election. He says that's where his message of health care and fiscal discipline comes in.
In the meantime, he hopes Americans will continue taking note of the candidate with executive experience who refuses to pull his punches.
As for the other antiwar candidate with executive experience, Dean praises Graham effusively. Last week, one supporter in a Miami suburb urged him to take a hard look at Graham for vice president.
"That," Dean said, "would be a very logical choice."
-- Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or email@example.com
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