“If you believe Al Sharpton, Howard Dean is anti-black; if you believe Dean, Dick Gephardt is anti-gay; if you believe Joe Lieberman, John Kerry is anti-Jew.”

That’s how The Hotline, a daily political tip sheet, began a recent edition. This lead captured the mood of the Democrats’ presidential bake-off: testy. As the value of the Democratic presidential nomination has increased in recent weeks (with George W. Bush appearing more vulnerable) and as the first votes in Iowa (January 19) and New Hampshire (January 27) approach, a mean-spirited competitiveness is coloring the race. Sure, the contestants agree Bush is ruining the land of the brave. But the nonet has trained Kill Bill levels of political violence upon one another.

As Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. prepared to endorse former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, African-American activist Al Sharpton accused Dean, the front-runner, of hewing to “an anti-black agenda” because he had once said affirmative action should be based on class, not race. Meanwhile, the Dean campaign claimed that a staff member was roughed up by a Gephardt aide who called the Dean man “a faggot.” The Gephardt camp countered that the Dean guy had become unruly at a Gephardt event in Iowa and had to be escorted out and that the F word had not been voiced. And in Arizona, supporters of Senator Joseph Lieberman complained that a prominent supporter of Senator John Kerry had pressed them to switch to Kerry because Lieberman cannot campaign three days a week due to his observance of the Jewish Sabbath.

And so it goes. Several of the Democratic candidates have whacked retired General Wesley Clark for inconsistent statements on the war in Iraq. Kerry and Gephardt continuously berate Dean for flip-flops. At the CNN/Rock the Vote debate, Sharpton and Senator John Edwards lacerated Dean for saying he wanted the Democratic Party to reach out to working-class Southerners who drive pickups bearing Confederate-flag decals. And much of the edginess is born of frustration.

All but two of the candidates have reasons to be damn frustrated. The back-of-the-packers — Sharpton, former Senator Carol Moseley Braun and Representative Dennis Kucinich — remain mired. Of the three, Kucinich has the most to be irritated about. Members of Congress tend not to fare well in presidential contests. But Kucinich is the progressive in Congress, a leader of the anti-war effort, foe of the PATRIOT Act, friend of labor, a no-apologies lefty. Yet Dean, not he, has been scoring with Democrats yearning for a kick-ass candidate. The Kucinich movement (endorsed by actor Danny Glover, union activist Ed Garvey and the American Vegetarians) has been elbowed aside by the much larger Dean movement. Kucinich has reacted by lashing out at the media, turning down an invitation to appear on Hardball. A campaign aide explained that host Chris Matthews is “biased in favor of corporate interests over the public’s interests.”

Lieberman, Kerry, Clark and Edwards — deemed top-tier candidates — each have more reason for frustration. Lieberman started off with more name recognition than the others. But as a pro-war hawk he is no natural fit for Democratic primary voters. Recently, he has tried to showcase his Venus-rather-than-Mars side. He called for a tax hike for the wealthy. And he pushed anti-global-warming legislation onto the floor of the Senate, where it was beaten back 55 to 43. But for grassroots Democrats, his chief distinction — I’m the more conservative guy in the race — is not an obvious hit. He’s even dropped out of the Iowa caucuses, more evidence his campaign theme song ought to be the Hank Williams tune that goes, “Why don’t you love me like you used to do?”

Edwards, who represents North Carolina, has learned that good hair and a fresh face are not enough — especially post-9/11. As a smart-as-a-whip trial attorney who started out working-class and became mega-rich, he offers more than what passes for sex appeal in Washington. But as a legislator with only four and a half years’ experience he has not been able to distinguish himself as either an insider or an outsider. Edwards has been adhering to a slow and steady strategy premised on a win in South Carolina on February 3 that will supposedly trigger Edwards avalanches in subsequent primaries. Well, maybe. But he has won the endorsement of Ashton Kutcher.

Clark, too, has learned the hard way. His lesson: Running for president is much tougher than talking about running for president. Once, his fans — and maybe Clark himself — thought he could parachute into the race and immediately stand apart from the others. Now, as his campaign sells “the General” on the basis of his “electability,” Clark says he’s looking to place fourth in New Hampshire — and that’s after he skips Iowa. A dovish general should be a smash in dovish Iowa; yet victory in the caucuses there requires much organization, and Clark does not have the troops. But back to “electability”: How would placing fourth in New Hampshire demonstrate that?

Kerry has the most cause to be frustrated. At the start of the campaign, he was the default candidate. Intelligent. Good-looking. War hero. Liberal — but not too. Married to an heiress. And his campaign has had no lift. He’s had to watch a nobody governor sweep past him and knock him to second place in New Hampshire, while repeatedly having to explain his all-too-nuanced position on the war. (He sort of opposed it but voted to authorize Bush to invade Iraq.) How he must howl at night. But his campaign slogs along, bagging money and endorsements. And Kerry slams Dean almost daily for one alleged flip-flop after another. Sometimes he has a point. For example, as Vermont governor, Dean supported the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository. More recently, Dean said, “Now that I’m running for president, I’ve seen the light,” and he called for a review of the Yucca Mountain plan. It’s fair game for Kerry to note such reversals. But it looks like flailing.

Dean and Gephardt are the only two contenders who ought to be happy these days. Dean is further along than anyone — maybe even he — expected. And Gephardt has come on strong in Iowa, where he is leading Dean in the polls, demonstrating he’s no has-been — at least not yet. With labor support, Gephardt is in contention to win the first contest of 2004.

It’s no shocker then that Gephardt has been firing at Dean, branding him a Gingrich Democrat for having signaled a willingness to squeeze budget savings out of Medicare. “We need a Democratic nominee who is clearly different from George Bush,” Gephardt declared. In return, Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi observed, “Gephardt had 27 years in Washington to provide universal health insurance, a prescription-drug benefit for our seniors or health coverage for our children. And what do Americans have as a result? Nothing.” Ouch.

For Dean, the attacks on him are a sign of success. He’s the guy wearing the bull’s-eye — but it’s on his back. And time is getting short for those gunning for him. Which means the nasty season will only be getting nastier. Democrats worried that this intraparty bashing might hurt whoever wins the nomination should give up hope. Desperate candidates will do desperate things.

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