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Can Howard Dean be stopped in his bid to become the new
chairman of the Democratic National Committee? That’s the question the party’s
establishment has been asking since Dean — who’d said he’d run only if he thought
he had the votes to win — jumped into the contest with a media splash last week.
Instantly he became the front-runner in the field of seven candidates for party
chief and prompted the establishment to embark on an Anybody-but-Dean movement.

It may not be easy for the center-right leaning power elite in
the party to bar the route to the doctor from Vermont. The establishment’s original
candidate, former Indiana Congressman Tim Roemer, entered the race with the
puissant backing of the Democrats’ two Congressional chiefs — Senate Minority
Leader Harry Reid, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The handsome and
articulate Roemer got a lot of face time on the tube during the 9/11 Commission
hearings, where he proved himself an aggressive questioner and burnished his
image on national security — the latter, the party elite thought, made him a
bulletproof winner and a great public face for a party still reeling from its
November defeat, in which post-9/11 security hysteria played a major role.

But Roemer has been effectively torpedoed by a bizarre alliance
— a double-whammy, slash-and-burn lobbying campaign by two of the party’s most
influential interests: the women’s groups, and the American Israel Public Affairs
Committee (AIPAC). The women’s groups, led by NARAL Pro-Choice America and the
political fund-raising champs at EMILY’s List, have targeted Roemer’s extensive
anti-abortion voting record, and his declarations that the party should show
more “tolerance” for abortion foes and needs to eliminate its “moral
blind spot” on late-term abortions. (This record has many in the party,
including a lot of House members facing re-election, privately questioning Pelosi’s
judgment in endorsing him.)

AIPAC — the powerful, treasury-rich pro-Israeli lobby, now embroiled
in accusations that it was at the center of a spy ring within the Pentagon on
Israel’s behalf — has been brandishing a list of what it claims are 22 “anti-Israel”
Congressional votes by Roemer, who’s been a critic of the $6 billion plus in
U.S. aid to Ariel Sharon and his “Wall of Shame.” Many of the party’s
Jewish big contributors have become even more knee-jerk supporters of Israel’s
no-compromise conservative government since 9/11. “The DNC’s biggest source
of large-donor money is from fat-cat Jews,” says a veteran Democratic fund-raiser,
“and AIPAC’s threat — elect Roemer and we’ll shut down your Jewish big
money — has been incredibly effective.”

A gaggle of little-known center-right postulants for the DNC post
have failed to catch fire. Donnie Fowler, a callow technocrat from North Carolina
(his biggest credential is having managed the ignominiously failed presidential
campaign of Gen. Wes Clark), has a Web site featuring a plug for him that begins,
“He loves God.” Simon Rosenberg, a former staffer for the center-right
Democratic Leadership Council, runs the New Democrat Network, the DLC-oriented
PAC (some would say it’s a DLC front group), and has been relentless in attacking
Roemer, whom he saw as the man to beat (a negative campaign that has alienated
many committee members). Wellington Webb, a lackluster former Denver mayor and
the only African-American in the race, hasn’t even generated much enthusiasm
among black elected officials. And former Ohio party chairman David Leland is
so unknown that some DNC members I talked to didn’t even know he’s in the race.

As Roemer sinks, the man who's emerged in the last week as the
party establishment’s Stop-Dean candidate is former Texas Congressman Martin
Frost. Frost is much appreciated by party insiders for the skill in limiting
his party’s losses when he ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee
in the ’96 and ’98 election cycles, during which he proved himself an adept
fund-raiser and a master of organizational detail — and he’s got a powerful
lobbying force in the Democratic House members whose seats he helped save. Frost
was deprived of his House seat last year after a gerrymander engineered by House
Majority Leader and fellow Texan Tom “The Hammer” DeLay. Frost, usually
labeled a party moderate, doesn’t have some of the heavy baggage that has crippled
Roemer: He’s won a 100 percent voting-record approval on abortion from NARAL,
and — as only the second Jew ever elected to Congress from Texas and a consistent
supporter of aid to Israel who’s also voted for every pro-Israeli, anti-Arab
resolution that came to the House floor — he’s more than acceptable to the AIPAC
crowd. A fairly reliable liberal on economic issues who has opposed all of Bush’s
tax cuts, Frost is a hawk on foreign and military policy. A supporter of the
Star Wars missile defense system who has voted for bloated military budgets
and against cuts at the Pentagon (Texas gets a lot of military-industrial complex
contracts), Frost was a big supporter of the war in Iraq, voting to shred the
Constitution by approving the blank check to Bush for war and defending the
war on the floor of the House.

The mood of the Democratic establishment these days is aggressively
centrist, and Frost’s candidacy could be boosted by Democratic governors who
have an inordinate influence over docile DNC members from their states — like
Michigan’s Jennifer Granholm, an erstwhile progressive who last month declared
the party needs “to push an agenda that is centrist and that speaks to
where most people are.”

It doesn’t seem to matter that Dean’s reputation as a liberal
is exaggerated. In the lead-up to his DNC candidacy, Dean reiterated in interviews
that he was a “centrist” who had governed as one in Vermont; and last
year he told my colleague David Corn, “I really have a healthy mistrust
of the Left as well as the Right.” After his defeat in the Democratic primaries
last year, he ran away from his opposition to the war in Iraq, telling MSNBC’s
Chris Matthews, “I never did base my campaign on the war” — an attempt
to rewrite history which drew guffaws from people not afflicted with Alzheimer’s.
Dean was infinitely less leftish — and less significant — than the movement
that crystallized around him. But Dean’s shoot-from-the-lip, unscripted style
scares the bejesus out of party powerbrokers and Democratic consultants. And
even Joe Trippi, who made a lot of money from TV ad buys when he managed Dean’s
presidential campaign, showed he didn’t stay bought when he endorsed another
candidate (Rosenberg) for the DNC job. There’s even a move afoot to persuade
a fresh Stop-Dean centrist candidate with more charisma than the dull and wintry
Frost to enter the fray: most often mentioned is ex-Senator Bob Kerrey, another
ex–9/11 Commission member and current president of New York’s New School.

Even so, Dean is the man to beat. At a regional forum for the
candidates for DNC chair in Missouri on Saturday, it was Dean whose every sally
drew enthusiastic applause from those in attendance. And a poll for The Hotline
of 187 of the 447 DNC members released late last week showed a clear Dean-Frost
contest — with a first ballot choice of 58 for Dean, 30 for Frost, eight for
Roemer, four each for Fowler, Rosenberg and Webb, and one lone vote for Leland,
with the rest undecided. (But add all the votes in this poll for the other centrist
candidates to Frost, and he edges out Dean.) The DNC meets February 12 to make
its choice.

Stay tuned.

Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at
https://direland.typepad.com/direland/.

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