Advisers to President Bush once relished a race against Howard Dean, but they say they have become increasingly wary of him, worried that his unconventional and intense appeal poses a threat they had once underestimated.
Various officials from throughout Bush's political organization said they view the former Vermont governor's nomination as all but inevitable -- even though no votes will be cast until next month, and some well-connected Democrats still hope to derail Dean because they fear he is running too far to the left to be viable in next fall's general election.
The endorsement of Dean by former vice president Al Gore on Tuesday cemented the growing concern among GOP officials that Dean's lightning progress from also-ran to front-runner means that he could spawn unpredictable hazards for Bush. Although one administration official said Dean is still widely viewed in the White House as "a gift from God," a more cautious view is gaining currency.
"He has the biggest potential to go down in flames, but he also has a certain wild-card potential," said former Minnesota Republican representative Vin Weber.
Among the factors that most worry them, Bush officials said, is Dean's ability to attract young voters and others who have not voted before. Some of the officials said they also are given pause by Dean's similarities to their boss: a polarizing figure who has a temper and deep appeal to his core supporters.
"We believe this is going to be an election about our two bases, and therefore Dean's ability to excite his base means that he's a formidable candidate," a well-known Republican said after discussing the issue with Bush's top strategists. "This is an evolution in the thinking. So much for uniting and all that stuff."
Five months ago, Karl Rove, Bush's senior adviser, startled onlookers when he joined the final line of a chant at a Fourth of July parade in Northwest Washington, "We want Howard Dean!"
Rove later told friends he was joking, but his apparent enthusiasm was taken in political circles as a clue that Dean, widely portrayed as dovish and liberal, was Bush's opponent of choice. That view was bolstered when some establishment Democrats began voicing their fear that Dean might wind up running nearly as poorly as Sen. George S. McGovern, who lost 49 states to President Richard M. Nixon in 1972.
Dean remains a dream candidate for many Republicans. "Can you imagine a convention to nominate Howard Dean?" asked a GOP lobbyist. "It would be a festival of labor and universal health care, a liberal celebration beamed into living rooms all over the South and Midwest."
One longtime Republican operative conjured his idea of Dean in debates. "He'd be like Jack Nicholson in 'A Few Good Men,' " the operative said. "When he's being questioned, he gets redder and redder, like his head is exploding, and then he blurts out, 'You can't handle the truth.' Dean is just exactly like that. I see it written all over him."
More and more Republicans in the administration and elsewhere, however, are urging fellow party members to quit talking about a cakewalk or a blowout.
Robert T. Bennett, chairman of the Ohio GOP, was one of several veteran party officials who said they are having flashbacks to 1992, when they all assured themselves that little-known Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was no match for Bush's father. "Everybody told me that Clinton came from a third-rate state with a budget smaller than Wal-Mart's and that he didn't need to worry about him," Bennett said. "I think we still call him Mr. President."
For the record, Bush's aides would say only that the president will offer a sharp contrast to any of the Democrats and they believe the election may be as close as it was in 2000, no matter who is nominated.
Conversations with officials throughout Bush's organization make it clear that they plan to paint the nominee, whoever it is, as a liberal, tax-raising peacenik who wants to bash Bush instead of offering positive solutions. With Dean, though, many Bush officials believe their job might be easier.