Here's a guy planning to wage what amounts to a straight-talkin' populist campaign when the "People vs. Powerful" theme has supposedly gone the way of parachute pants. He promises balanced budgets at the same time he opposed war in Iraq. He cites a record that protects gun rights and gay rights.
So far, this unlikely mix is working nationally, where Dean has pulled even with front-running US Senator John Kerry in New Hampshire polls. The rest of the top candidates, meanwhile, are saddled with having given President Bush a blank check for action against Saddam Hussein last fall while half their party opposed the war.
But Dean's ascendancy means more than just Iraq. He has tapped into a vein of frustration the faithful feel toward a party seemingly scared of the president's popularity, preoccupied with middle class tax cuts and terminally afraid of being cast as liberals or class warriors -- call it the Lieberman Syndrome.
Ask a Carolina Democrat about this approach and he might say, "Damn right, we're scared." After all, they watched their squeaky clean former White House chief of staff do everything but claim he was the Tweedle-Dum to George Bush's Tweedle-Dee last November, and he still got clobbered. And yet this Dean thinks he's going to take Southern states talking about universal health care, the environment and why America was wrong to invade Iraq without getting the go-ahead from Kofi Annan?
Such is the confidence -- bordering on hubris -- of a candidate who has never lost an election. In Erskine Bowles' failure, Dean sees the way to success: Be aggressive, offer a plainspoken vision and the public will come with you. That's one of the reasons this little-known governor from a state of only 600,000 or so people has turned just about every recent Democratic confab into a Church of Dean revival and why he can win his party's nomination.
But it will take more than shooting from the hip in the South. Dean must find new voters and nonvoters, groups heavy with the young and minorities while holding some piece of the largely white center. And he'll have to do it on a scale that Clinton never did. It borders on unprecedented.
Of course, one might think Dean's timing couldn't be better. More than two million Americans have lost their jobs since Bush came to power. Real wages are down, and the government faces the largest budget deficit in its history. More than 40 million Americans lack health insurance.
Many economists argue that if the economy fails to turn around this quarter, it is unlikely to add significant jobs before fall 2004. The flipside for Bush is that if his budget is passed as proposed, according to Washington Post columnist David Broder, it will mean $165 billion in cuts to social programs that benefit the poor.
The problem for Dean is that the very tactic that has brought him to prominence nationally stands to muzzle him in the South, where you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a military base. And party pragmatists suspect Dean's anti-war rhetoric will make any election a tussle over national security instead of Bush's domestic troubles.
Dean, a doctor by trade, insists that he wants to compete in the South. And he's putting his money where his mouth is. Dean injected $32,000 into his campaign in the crucial primary state of South Carolina -- more than he spent in any other state -- according to his campaign finance report. "There are a lot of people in Georgia who will tend to be conservative on social issues but whose kids don't have health insurance," Dean says. "I can do something about that." The key is constructing a white-black coalition that votes on its economic self-interest, he says.
To make that appeal, Dean, who notes he served as Vermont's top politician long enough to govern through two Bush recessions -- 12 years -- relies on hard-nosed rhetoric, a style one probably associates more with Republicans than Democrats.
"It was always "talk to you straight,'" says Peter Freyne, a journalist with Burlington, VT, alternative weekly newspaper Seven Days, who covered Dean for more than 20 years. "He's not going to be a wimp. He's not going to coddle you. He's not afraid to offend you because he wants you to like him."
The question is whether a campaign that emphasizes the necessity of affirmative action and the right to bear arms can capture both whites and blacks in the Bible belt. Southern political scientists familiar with the region's likes and dislikes say fat chance.
First, notes Georgia College and State University's Chris Grant, there is the matter of Dean's decision to approve Vermont's civil unions law. That legislation gave the same legal benefits to Vermont's gay couples that married couples enjoy, and it figures to be exploited by candidates on the right. It might even be used subtly in the primaries where Dean faces two candidates, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who both voted for the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act.