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Insiders Who Are On the Outs

Dean's Young Backers Had Nothing To Lose; His Washington Defectors Did

By Hanna Rosin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 2004; Page C01

Back at the Sheraton bar in Burlington, Vt., after Howard Dean's exit speech, the drunk-talk did not turn bitter. These were young people who'd never been part of the system. They'd never been Washington insiders with reputations, connections, clients to squander, and so never had much to lose. And if they'd lately grown mad at Dean for mucking it up ("right strategy, wrong candidate" was the gripe from last week), that anger passed in seeing him up there again yesterday.

"I thought I was done crying . . . but I saw him and started crying again," said Karen Hicks, the New Hampshire state director now in Burlington. "He's this great person who led this amazing movement that's really changed the substance of how politics is conducted."

Lobbyist Nikki Heidepriem, who helped organize a group of Washington lobbyists, people and acedemics for Dean, expects to pay a price. (Sarah L. Voisin - The Washington Post)

Dean was his old self, talking about the "new track to take back America," taking on the same enemies he'd lately grown uncomfortably close to: Democratic Party insiders who must be reminded of "standards of decency, honesty and integrity," old institutions resistant to change, the Washington types his political movement had left cowering in their "salons in Georgetown."

It was a speech perfectly pitched to the Burlington crowd of first believers from the early days of the campaign. But it was a simplification that left no room for a second category of Dean supporters picked up along the way: those denizens of the Georgetown salons who'd embraced the candidate, and now had to face the consequences.

Here in Washington, Dean supporters say they endorsed him because he was antiwar, or because they traveled to Burlington and were romanced, transported back to their own political awakenings. If they were alienating their establishment friends in the party, so what? Such excitement! Such youth! Such technological wizardry!

Now they are in the same position as the lawyer who signed on to the dot-com boom only to have the start-up go bust and was forced to come slinking back to the firm, the accountant who joined the rock band that fizzled, anyone on the morning after a one-night stand.

Publicly, the party was one step closer to closing ranks. But for those who had defected to the outsider, there were still some wrinkles: party leaders who had to explain themselves, consultants who have to grovel to the winning team, lobbyists who might see their business drop off, think-tankers who might not be invited to participate in the next Democratic Party roundtable, especially if the subject happens to be the centrist legacy of Bill Clinton.

Al Gore returned from an overseas trip yesterday, landing in New York a few hours before Dean's speech, and he didn't return calls requesting comment on Dean exiting the race. When he endorsed Dean in December, Gore cited the usual starry-eyed reasons: the candidate's ability to "inspire at the grass-roots level," his "passion and enthusiasm" for change, things Gore the candidate had never quite managed to do.

In hindsight, Gore's decision to jump on so early seemed baffling. Here is commentary from an old associate who spoke on the condition that he not be identified: "Maybe in his own mind he's now ingratiated himself with this Internet political community, but in the broader Democratic Party people are scratching their heads as to what the hell he thinks he was doing, when he was doing it. We expect him to be a lot smarter than us and he just wasn't."

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) will be best remembered for doing the dance portion of the Dean scream show in Iowa. Harkin was conspicuously absent from the Dean entourage in nearby Wisconsin earlier this week and lately played the part of statesman, sending the message to Dean that he should quietly exit the race.

But Harkin has been silent so far on his own role in the affair and the risk he took by abandoning old congressional colleagues to support someone he barely knew. "He stuck his neck out and left colleagues he's known for decades hanging," says one Democratic strategist who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. The man compared Harkin to prominent supporters of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2000 presidential race. "You never saw them get close to the Bush White House."

Members of Congress are likely to be quickly forgiven, however. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) was an early and zealous supporter of Dean. She'd seen him speak at a meeting in California and "people around me were crying," she recalls. It took her back to seventh grade, watching John F. Kennedy. "He made people believe and have hope again," she says.

Lofgren held weekly strategy sessions at her home, recruiting more than 30 fellow members of Congress to campaign for him. The process required nursing some bruised feelings. Dean's harsh attacks on certain congressional endeavors, particularly the No Child Left Behind law, irritated colleagues who'd worked hard on a compromise.

"It seemed naive," said an aide to Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), one of the irritated and a Kerry supporter. The aide predicted no great payback, "nothing you'd notice," he joked.

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