The Magazine

A Not-So-Unstoppable Frontrunner

From the October 13, 2003 issue: The Dean campaign's rendezvous with reality.

Oct 13, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 05 • By DAVID TELL
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THERE'S A STANDARD two-part explanation for why Iowa's Democratic caucus electorate, a third or more of it derived from labor-movement households, hasn't long since rolled over for Dick Gephardt, who's got a truckload of union endorsements. One: Iowa Democrats disapprove of the president's war with Iraq, which Gephardt voted to authorize. Two: Gephardt's executive-committee union endorsements are as deep as it goes. The rank-and-file memberships view him with no particular enthusiasm. They tend to prefer--or so suggested the Des Moines Register poll--Howard Dean instead.

And yet: Less than two weeks after that poll was released, I twice in three days watched Gephardt speak to sizable Iowa union audiences, the second one a mammoth Friday evening candidates' forum in Cedar Rapids, and both times he received a positively rapturous response. At neither event could I find a single rank-and-filer in the crowd who had much bad to say about him. In Cedar Rapids, further confounding the usual who's-for-whom account of things, I did find one local labor dignitary willing to volunteer his profound contempt for Gephardt's current presidential ambitions. It wasn't the war, or any other issue, that was bugging this man. His animus was driven by a purely political calculation: He didn't think Gephardt had the spine to "dethrone" President Bush. Not after what happened in last year's midterm congressional elections: "A lot of union people spent money they didn't have, volunteered time they didn't have. Dick Gephardt was the Democratic leader. And Tom Daschle. And we were off in the wilderness. No idea what the party was supposed to stand for. We shoulda taken back the House. And I, personally, just can't get over that."

Was it this gentleman's sense that a similar resistance to Gephardt's candidacy might be bubbling under the surface throughout the labor movement generally? "No, it isn't," he conceded. "If it were, he wouldn't be getting all these endorsements." Okay, how about those labor people who did share his feelings on the matter? If not Dick Gephardt, then who? Would it be safe to suppose--the Register poll and whatnot--that he himself would be voting for Dean? "No, I'm for John Kerry, have been from the start," again for reasons having nothing at all to do with the war, which Kerry, too, voted to authorize. Why Kerry and not Dean, I wondered? "It's kinda hard to explain. [Dean] just kind of rubs me the wrong way. A kind of arrogance. I know he tries to work on it. But it just doesn't come off as natural." It turned out that the master of ceremonies that evening, Ray Dochterman, the president of the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City Building Trades, also preferred Kerry to Dean. When it was Kerry's turn to take the stage, to almost-Gephardt-level thunderous applause, Dochterman wrote him out a surprise-gift $1,000 personal check, right there on the spot.

And when it was Howard Dean's turn to take the stage, things got more surprising still. Early on in his remarks, as you would expect, Dean brought up the subject that had most energized his campaign and best distinguished him from his principal competitors. "I did not support the war in Iraq, and let me tell you why," he began, before being interrupted by a standing ovation--from about a third of the room. The other two thirds stayed seated. A fair number of them grimaced. Among the grimacers, one woman from Iowa--"Just call me 'one woman from Iowa,'" she later instructed me--noticed that I was looking at her and flushed red in the face. By which point Dean had finished with Iraq and moved on to George W. Bush's spoliation of America's domestic economy. "How many of you have lost a job in the last twelve months?" he asked the crowd. Maybe twenty people, out of more than a thousand, raised their hands. Dean attempted to recover: "How many of you have a family member who's lost a job in the last twelve months?" A couple dozen more hands, tops. Only when Dean had extended the unemployment list to friends and acquaintances did his stunt produce its intended visual effect. And pretty soon after that, it was time for someone else to talk.

And pretty soon after that, it was time for me to seek out "one woman from Iowa," apologize for peering at her as I had, and ask her why she'd flushed red during that business about the war. Whereupon she flushed red again: "You were up front by the stage. I thought you worked for Howard Dean. My nephew was in Baghdad. And now he's in Kuwait City. And Howard Dean oughta shut the f-- up."