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On what was, undoubtedly, the most important day so far for his campaign for the presidency, John Edwards arranged to take time away from shaking hands with actual voters in the critical state of South Carolina to meet with a group of people who could not vote in that state, nor in any of the half dozen others that held primaries and caucuses on Tuesday.
Yet, the people with whom Edwards agreed to meet could hold the power to decide whether the North Carolina senator really will be able to mount a serious challenge to frontrunner John Kerry in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. They were the leaders of several of the industrial unions that backed the failed candidacy of Dick Gephardt. Though they could not deliver for the former House Minority Leader, who ran a weak fourth in the January 19 Iowa caucuses and then withdrew, the more than 20 unions that backed Gephardt are finding that the doors of the remaining Democratic contenders remain very much open to them.
For Edwards, who won South Carolina's primary and posted solid second-place finishes in several of the other states that voted Tuesday, support from just a few of those unions -- particularly the 1.4-million member International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the 700,000-member United Steelworkers of America union -- could provide him with the infrastructure he needs to compete in northern industrial states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Illinois. It is in these states that Edwards will in coming weeks be under pressure to nationalize what some analysts still dismiss as a southern regional campaign, and union backing could make all the difference.
"With the Teamsters and a few other unions pulling for him, Edwards might be able to secure some upsets and really emerge as the alternative to Kerry," said a veteran labor leader from the upper Midwest, who backs none of the candidates at this point. "But, without them, I don't see how Edwards can build the organization he needs to take this thing national."
The industrial unions like Edwards. To their view, he's got a significantly better record on the international trade issues that are so vital to union members who have seen hundreds of thousands of jobs eliminated, as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement and Permanent Most-Favored Nation Trading Status with China. Edwards has never been so passionate a critic of the corporate free-trade agenda as Gephardt, who helped organize Congressional opposition to NAFTA and the granting of "Fast Track" authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement, or Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio. But, as far as labor is concerned, Edwards has a far better record than Kerry, whose support for free trade agreements has been almost as consistent as that of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, the corporate-friendly Democrat whose miserable showings in Tuesday's primaries and caucuses ended his presidential run.
Already, the Steelworkers union district that includes Michigan and Wisconsin has endorsed Edwards.
But most unions are holding off for now. The union leaders who met with the North Carolina senator Tuesday are expected to meet Thursday with Kerry, who has won seven of the nine primaries and caucuses held so far.
With Kerry emerging as the man to beat, unions that had backed Gephardt are cautious about going against him. They might prefer Edwards, but they will need a solid rational for doing so. There is real fear on the part of many labor leaders about backing two losers in the same nomination fight.
Some unions have already jumped to Kerry. Even before his breakthrough wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, the Massachusetts senator always had the backing of the 260,000-member International Fire Fighters Association and the 50,000-member Utility Workers Union of the America. And as his campaign has picked up steam, he has received endorsements from the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America union, the 150,000-member Sheet Metal Workers International Association and the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 workers in 29 government agencies. He has also gained the backing of the 27,000-member United Farm Workers union, which maintains influence beyond its numbers in Latino communities. And he is expected to secure the support of the 1.2-million member American Federation of Teachers union before the end of the week.
Kerry has also earned backing from a number of powerful union groupings in Michigan, where caucuses will be held Saturday. The 157,000-member Michigan Education Association is for him, as are United Auto Workers union Region 1D, the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and the West Michigan Building Trades Association.
Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who hopes to renew his campaign with a strong showing in Michigan, says, "The Michigan Education Association has endorsed Senator Kerry, but I think I'll get the vast majority of teachers' votes."
Dean had better hope he's right. He needs strong showings in Michigan and Washington state, which also holds caucuses on Saturday, as well as Wisconsin, which will hold what is shaping up as a critical primary on February 17. Dean's still has the backing of two of the largest unions in the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. But the former frontrunner is under pressure to deliver some wins soon. Both unions have spent in the range of $1 million to aid Dean who, so far, has been beaten in nine primaries and caucuses.
Dean will be called to explain his strategy for renewing his campaign in meetings later this week with leaders of AFSCME and SEIU, as well as another union that endorsed him when his campaign was on the rise, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. "Obviously, people are nervous. Obviously, they'd rather be in a different situation strategically," says Bob Muehlenkamp, the former Teamsters union organizing director who has been helping Dean line up labor support. "Obviously, people have doubts and hesitations when you're not winning elections and getting votes."
SEIU President Andy Stern says his union is committed to back Dean through Wisconsin's February 17 primary. "As Dr. Dean has said, he wants to win, he's not there to be a protest candidate," says Stern. "At some point he's going to have to decide if he's getting enough delegates and does he have the strategy to win."
Moments after the polls closed in New Hampshire on January 27, Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie declared that President Bush had won 94 percent of the Republican primary vote. It was a dramatic claim. Unfortunately for Gillespie, it was dramatically inaccurate.
When the Associated Press posted the unofficial returns from the GOP primary, it reported that Bush had won a little less than 86 percent of the vote. The fact that almost one out of every seven New Hampshire voters who took Republican ballots had apparently cast them for someone other than the party's incumbent president drew little note in major media accounts, but it was intriguing enough to merit mention in this column ("Bush Slips -- Among Republicans," Online Beat, 1-20-2004).
As it turns out, however, the unofficial tally by Associated Press significantly underestimated the collapse in the president's fortunes. According to updated figures from the New Hampshire Secretary of State's office, which only today posted a final figure on the total number of ballots cast, only 78 percent of New Hampshire voters who took Republican ballots marked them for Bush. (In one New Hampshire town, Milton, Bush received only 48 percent of the vote, while in a number of others he was held below 60 percent of the vote.)
The figures on the New Hampshire Secretary of State's office website (http://www.state.nh.us/sos/electionsnew.htm) show than 69,379 New Hampshire voters cast regular and absentee ballots in the Republican primary. Just 53,962 voted for Bush (78 percent). More than one in five Republican primary voters, 22--percent--chose not to vote for Bush.
Where did the renegade Republican votes go? While roughly ten percent of Republican primary voters statewide backed little-known Republicans whose names appeared on the ballot or simply did not vote, a remarkable 8,288 (12 percent) wrote in the names of leading Democratic presidential contenders.
The Democrat who won the most Republican primary votes was Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who got 3,009 write-in votes, for 4.3 percent of the Republican primary total. Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean received 1,888 write-in votes for 2.7 percent. Retired General Wesley Clark got 1,467 Republican write-ins for 2.1 percent.
By contrast, Bush received only 257 write-in votes in the Democratic primary, where a total of 220,053 ballots were cast.
How does the level of support for Bush in this year's Republican primary compare with past primaries in which a supposedly popular president faced no serious opposition? Not well. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower won 98.9 percent of the Republican primary vote, according to the New Hampshire Political Library. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson won 95.3 percent of the Democratic primary vote. And in 1984 and 1996, Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic President Bill Clinton both secured around 85 percent of the vote in their respective party primaries.
Considering President Bush's less-than-stellar showing in New Hampshire, it should come as little surprise that Republicans in some states have decided to cancel their primaries. In South Carolina, for instance, the state Republican Party's executive committee decided not to hold their state's tradition first-in-the-south primary. They simply endorsed Bush for reelection and agreed to select delegates at district and state Republican Party conventions where, presumably, the president will not have to run the risk of embarrassment at the hands of independent thinking voters.
(Online Beat thanks to a sharp reader, Joe Loy, who alerted us to the shifting New Hampshire Republican primary figures. Thanks also to Paula Penney, an administrative assistant in the New Hampshire Secretary of State's office, who explained that it takes time to get a final count because a lot of New Hampshire votes are still cast on traditional paper ballots. Penney says the results that are now posted should be the last official word on what New Hampshire voters think of Bush--until November.)
What if we lived in a parallel universe where Howard Dean was actually treated fairly by the media?
I don't mean some Deaniac bizarro world where the former Vermont governor's "I Have a Scream" speech in Iowa would be treated as world-class oratory, or where it would go unmentioned that his campaign is essentially broke. I mean a place where Dean would be treated like the other candidates--criticized for his mistakes, complimented for his accomplishments and, above all, treated seriously when he discusses issues.
How would a Dean candidacy be fairing today if the press gushed over him as it does John Edwards, or forgave him his trespasses as quickly as it does John Kerry, or overlooked the disorder in his organization as casually as it does the daily disaster that is Joe Lieberman's so-called campaign?
The answer, of course, is "better."
Dean has made mistakes, to be sure. But those mistakes have been amplified by a 24-hour-a-day news cycle, by late-night comics, by an Anybody-But-Dean army of cable television and talk-radio talking heads, and by Washington-centric newspaper columnists who never understood or particularly approved of Dean's decision to show up uninvited at the top of Democratic polls in late 2003.It wasn't just cable commentators and comics that gave Dean a hard time, however. According to the nonpartisan Center for Media and Public Affairs, Dean was the favorite target of the evening news programs on the nation's broadcast networks. The center's study of 187 CBS, NBC and ABC evening news reports found that only 49 percent of all on-air evaluations of Dean in 2003 were positive. The other Democratic contenders collectively received 78 percent favorable coverage during the same period.
The battering Dean took from the media actually strengthened him at first. Grassroots Democrats, like most Americans, are angry with media that did not have the courage--or the basic journalistic skills--to expose George Bush's lies about weapons of mass destruction and tax cuts for the rich before Americans started losing their lives in Iraq and their jobs in the heartland. For a time, the jabs he took from the media bounced off Dean as easily as did the attacks from the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council and other fronts for the Republican-lite wing of the party.
But, eventually, the hits began to take their toll. Despite the fact that Dean is actually better on his feet now than at any time since he announced his candidacy, he is greeted with skepticism even by Democrats who admit that they like his message. Traveling with Dean in South Carolina this week, I saw him earn thunderous applause from voters who said they appreciated his antiwar, anti-establishment message. When I asked if they would support him, however, these same Democrats quietly admitted they would probably vote for Kerry or Edwards--candidates who just weeks ago were dismissed as losers but are now regularly referred to as "electable" by the media pack.
It is true that every disintegrating presidential candidacy since that of John Adams in 1800 has blamed the media for its decline. But, in this case, Dean's complaints appear to be more credible than those of most damaged contenders.
How do we know?
Consider one place on the campaign trail where Dean did receive good press--or, at least, fair press--right up to the time when ballots began to be cast. That place is southwest New Hampshire, a region that still gets a lot of its news from a feisty independent daily newspaper called the Keene Sentinel. I know the Sentinel reasonably well because I wrote some for it during the 1984 New Hampshire primary season, and I have always kept up with its coverage of candidates and campaigns.
Since 1799, the Sentinel has been synonymous with news in what is known as the Monadnock Region of New Hampshire. The newspaper has a long history of taking politics seriously, and it still does. All the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination campaigned aggressively in southwest New Hampshire--which borders Dean's Vermont and Kerry's Massachusetts--and all of them earned front-page coverage of their statements and stands in the Sentinel.
So the Monadnock Region was treated to some of the most thorough coverage of the campaign in the country. And that coverage was not filtered through a "news center" in Washington or New York or Atlanta.
Thus, when it came time for the Sentinel to make an endorsement, the editors looked over their own coverage and came to a conclusion: Dean was not the screaming hothead portrayed on cable TV. Rather, they saw a sensible and appealing candidate, and they backed him, writing that, "Dean offers voters a wide range of well-thought-out policy initiatives, foreign and domestic, based on a dramatic--and one might say conservative--theme: I want my country back. That cry, coupled with Dean's direct, energetic style, appeals to a lot of Democrats and independents, and has attracted a large number of people to his campaign who had previously been alienated from politics of any kind. Dean is particularly effective in his open refusal to entice voters with wild promises of expensive new government programs...
"We come to this decision not without some difficulty, given the appeal of the (retired General) Clark and (US Senator John) Edwards candidacies. But we believe on balance that Dean is best-equipped to restore respect for this country abroad while protecting the interests of Americans at home. And we believe Dean, unlike the current occupant of the White House, understands that the two efforts must be linked. All nations reserve the right to act boldly in their own interests, but no nation--even our own exceptional nation--can thrive as a go-it-alone force on virtually every matter of international substance: energy, the environment, trade, war and peace. Dean has reasonable and we believe workable ideas for addressing Americans' needs regarding health care, the federal deficit, homeland security, jobs, civil rights and the economy. And he would reverse the current administration's shameless weakening of environmental laws.
"No one will accuse Howard Dean of being soft on anything--that's hardly his style. But in the long run, tough policies are most effective when they are also smart policies. We observed Dean through a long career as governor of Vermont accomplishing a great deal by combining diligence with intelligence. Along the way, he usually won the respect not only of his allies, but of many of his adversaries as well. If he can bring that vitality and that sensitivity to the national stage, he and we might well get our country back."
The Sentinel wasn't the only thing Dean had going for him in southwest New Hampshire. But the steady and responsible coverage the region's dominant newspaper accorded him, along with its endorsement, appear to have had at least some impact.
Last Tuesday, Kerry won New Hampshire by a margin of 39 percent to 26 percent for Dean. Dean, who had been leading in just about every New Hampshire region, according to polls taken late in 2003, saw his support slip dramatically in most places. But the former Vermont governor carried southwest New Hampshire, winning 6,639 votes to 6,070 for Kerry. Of 31 towns in the Monadnock Region, John Kerry won just 11, while Howard Dean took 20.
FOR UPDATED FIGURES FROM NEW HAMPSHIRE'S REPUBLICAN PRIMARY, SEE "BUSH SLIPS-EVEN FURTHER" at: http://www.thenation.com/thebeat
The record-high turnout in the New Hampshire Democratic primary -- 219,787 Granite State voters took Democratic ballots Tuesday, shattering the previous record of 170,000 in 1992 -- is being read as a signal that voters in one New England state, and most likely elsewhere, are enthusiastic about the prospect of picking a challenger for George W. Bush. And the turnout in the Democratic primary is not even the best indicator of the anti-Bush fervor in New Hampshire, a state that in 2000 gave four critical electoral votes to the man who secured the presidency by a razor-thin Electoral College margin of 271-267.
Many New Hampshire primary participants decided to skip the formalities and simply vote against the president in Tuesday's Republican primary. Thousands of these Bush-bashing Republicans went so far as to write in the names of Democratic presidential contenders.
Under New Hampshire law, only Democrats and independents were permitted to participate in Tuesday's Democratic presidential primary. That meant that Republicans who wanted to register their opposition to Bush had to do so in their own party's primary. A remarkable number of them did just that.
One in seven Republican primary voters cast ballots for candidates other than Bush, holding the president to just 85 percent of the 62,927 ballots cast. In some parts of the state, such as southwest New Hampshire's Monadnock Region, a historic bastion of moderate Republicanism, Bush did even worse. In Swanzey, for instance, 37 percent of GOP primary voters rejected Bush. In nearby Surry, almost 29 percent of the people who took Republican ballots voted against the Republican president, while a number of other towns across the region saw anti-Bush votes of more than 20 percent in the GOP primary.
Few of the anti-Bush votes went to the 13 unknown Republicans whose names appeared on GOP ballots along with the president's. Instead, top Democratic contenders reaped write-in votes.
US Senator John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, who won the Democratic primary, came in second to Bush in the Republican contest, winning 3,009 votes. Kerry's name was written in on almost 5 percent of all GOP ballots. Who were these Republican renegades for Kerry? People like 61-year-old retired teacher David Anderson. A Vietnam veteran, Anderson told New Hampshire's Concord Monitor that he wrote in Kerry's name because the senator, also a veteran, understands the folly of carrying on a failed war. "I feel a commander, the president of the United States, ought to be a veteran," explained Anderson, who says his top priority is getting US troops out of Iraq.
Kerry wasn't the only Democrat who appealed to Republicans. In third place on the Republican side of the ledger was former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who won 1,888 votes, more than 3 percent of the GOP total. Retired General Wesley Clark secured 1,467 Republican votes, while almost 2,000 additional Republican primary votes were cast for North Carolina Senator John Edwards, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
In all, 8,279 primary voters wrote in the names of Democratic challengers to Bush on their Republican ballots.
That's a significant number. In the 2000 general election, Bush beat Democrat Al Gore in New Hampshire by just 7,212 votes. Had Gore won New Hampshire, he would have become president, regardless of how the disputed Florida recount was resolved.
The prospect that Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters in New Hampshire, and nationally, might be developing doubts about whether Bush should be reelected is the ultimate nightmare for the Bush political team. White House political czar Karl Rove begins his calculations with an assumption that Republicans will be united in their support of the president's reelection. But the president's deficit-heavy fiscal policies, his support for free-trade initiatives that have undermined the country's manufacturing sector, and growing doubts about this Administration's military adventurism abroad appear to have irked not just Democrats and independents, but also a growing number of Republicans.
The Bush White House is taking this slippage seriously. US Senator John McCain, R-Arizona, who beat Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire Republican primary, was dispatched to the Granite State before Tuesday's primary, in order to pump up the president's prospects, as were Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and New York Governor George Pataki. And Bush, himself, jetted into the state on Thursday, effectively acknowledging that state Republican Party chair Jane Millerick was right when she said, "What we have recognized is that New Hampshire is a swing state."
But can the president pull independent-minded Republicans, and Republican-minded independents, back to him? That task could prove to be tougher than the job of finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
No one doubts that Democrats in New Hampshire, and elsewhere, are angry with the president. Indeed, if there was one message that has come through loud and clear during the first stages of the race for the Democratic nomination, it was that Democrats in the first-in-the-nation primary state -- like their peers in the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa -- have proven to be less interested in ideological distinctions between Democratic contenders than they are in picking a candidate who will beat Bush.
Exit polls conducted on Tuesday in New Hampshire did not merely sample the opinions of Democrats. They also questioned independent voters, who make up almost 40 percent of the New Hampshire electorate. A Democratic primary exit poll conducted for Associated Press and various television networks found that nine in ten independents were worried about the direction of the US economy. Eight in ten told the pollsters that some or all of the tax cuts pushed by the Bush administration should be canceled. Forty percent of the independents questioned in the poll said they were angry with Bush, while another 40 percent said they were simply dissatisfied with the president.
Bush aides are quick to dismiss the polling numbers.
But how will they dismiss the results of the New Hampshire Republican primary, where every seventh voter cast a ballot for anyone-but-Bush?
CBS officials are still refusing to air a MoveOn.org Voter Fund commercial during Sunday's Super Bowl game because that the 30-second advertisement criticizes President Bush's fiscal policies. There is no question that the network's determination to censor critics of the president damages the political discourse. But the network has not exactly silenced dissent. In fact, CBS's heavy-handed tactics are fueling an outpouring of grassroots anger over the dominance of communications in the United States by a handful of large media corporations. More than 400,000 Americans have contacted CBS to complain already, and the numbers are mounting hourly.
At the same time, the controversy surrounding the censorship of the MoveOn ad has heightened Congressional concern about lobbying by CBS's owner, Viacom, and other media conglomerates to lift limits on media consolidation and monopoly. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, says CBS should be seen as: "Exhibit A in the case against media concentration."
"The CBS Eye has been closed to the truth and to fairness," he said. "CBS has a great, great legacy. It is a storied name when it comes to public information in America. This chapter is sad and disgraceful," argues Durbin, who took to the floor of the Senate to express his concern that CBS was censoring the ad as a favor to the White House that has aggressively supported removing restrictions on the number of local television stations that can be owned by the network's parent company, Viacom.
CBS officials deny they are censoring the MoveOn ad as part of a political quid pro quo deal with a White House that has been friendly to the network's lobbying agenda. But U.S. Representative Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, the leading Congressional critic of moves by the Federal Communications Commission to allow the "Big Four" networks to dramatically increase their ownership of local TV stations, says that the censorship of the MoveOn ad highlights the potential for abuse of the public trust by media corporations that grow large enough – and arrogant enough -- to constrict the political discourse at both the local and national levels.
"Denying MoveOn's 30 second spot about the federal budget deficit seems a thinly veiled political decision," explains Sanders. "I hope that Viacom's move is not in any way payback to the Bush Administration for its ongoing efforts to loosen federal rules to allow large companies like Viacom to own a larger and larger share of the media in this country. I hope it's not but the timing of CBS' censorship is troubling. Regardless, this seems to be the latest example of how concentrated power in the media system harms the public interest."
With US Representatives Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois and Maurice Hinchey. D-New York, Sanders penned a letter to CBS President and CEO Les Moonves, which rebukes the network for refusing to sell air time to MoveOn. More than two dozen members of the House have signed on to the letter, which reads:
"We are writing to express our concerns about the decision of Viacom's CBS television network to deny MoveOn.org paid airtime during this year's Super Bowl. We believe this action sends a negative message to the American people about your network's commitment to preserving our democratic debate. Censoring this ad is an affront to free speech and an obstruction of the public's right to hear a diversity of voices over the public airwaves.
"CBS has said that the ad violated the network's policy against running issue advocacy advertising. However, the network has run a White House issue advocacy spot on the consequences of drug use during a past Super Bowl. CBS also will air a spot by Philip Morris USA and the American Legacy Foundation advocating against smoking during this year's Super Bowl. Additionally, the network profits enormously from the thousands of issue ads which air on CBS stations nationwide during election campaigns year after year. Because of these facts, we must call into question why CBS refuses the advertisement by MoveOn.org.
"Issue ads are commonplace and important for democratic debate. Yet, CBS seems to want to limit that debate to ads that are not critical of the political status quo, and in the case of the MoveOn ad, of the President and by extension the Republican-controlled Congress. Apparently, CBS feels that the topic covered in this paid advertisement--the federal government's budget crisis--is inappropriate or irrelevant for American viewers, despite being one of the most critical issues of our day.
"The choice not to run this paid advertisement appears to be part of a disturbing pattern on CBS's part to bow to the wishes of the Republican National Committee. We remember well CBS's remarkable decision this fall to self-censor at the direction of GOP pressure. The network shamefully cancelled a broadcast about former President Ronald Reagan which Republican partisans considered insufficiently flattering.
"Perhaps not coincidently, CBS's decision to censor the Reagan program and to deny airtime to this commercial comes at a time when the White House and the Republican Congress are pushing to allow even greater and greater media concentration - a development from which Viacom stands to benefit handsomely. The appearance of a conflict is hard to ignore. There may not be a fire here, but there certainly is a great deal of smoke.
"As Members of Congress, it is our responsibility to point out the negative direction in which we see CBS heading. You have been entrusted by the American people as stewards of the public airwaves. We ask that you not violate that trust and that you not censor this ad."
In addition to Sanders, Schakowsky and Hinchey, signers of the letter include Representatives Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; George Miller, D-California; Bob Filner, D-California; Diane Watson, D-California; Barbara Lee, D-California; Lynn Woolsey, D-California; Pete Stark, D-California; Sam Farr, D-California; Jerry Nadler, D-New York; Louise Slaughter, D-New York; Jose Serrano, D-New York; Major Owens, D-New York; Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon; Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin; Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona; Jay Inslee, D-Washington; Brian Baird, D-Washington; John Olver, D-Massachusetts; Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi; Robert Wexler, D-Florida and Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Illinois.
Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, a Democratic presidential contender, also signed the letter.
John Edwards is not running for the Democratic nomination as an anti-war candidate. Even in a campaign that has been defined by nothing so much as a constant process of redefinition on the parts of the major candidates, that would be too much of a stretch. After all, Edwards voted with more enthusiasm than most Democrats for the October, 2002, resolution that authorized George W. Bush to use force against Iraq. And long after another senator who voted for the war resolution, John Kerry, began to grumble about Bush's deceptions and missteps, Edwards continued to defend his vote and the war.
But, while Edwards is not running as an anti-war candidate, he has begun to run as an angry-about-the-war candidate. And in the competition for the votes of Democratic caucus and primary voters, that anger is serving him well. The North Carolina senator ran a suprisingly strong second in last Monday night's caucuses Iowa -- a state where exit polls showed 75 percent of Democratic caucusgoers were opposed to the war in Iraq. And polls suggest that he could ride a last-minute surge into a solid third-place finish in Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, a New England state where anti-war sentiments seem to be only slightly less pronounced than in the Midwest.
How is it that Edwards is doing so well with voters who think of themselves as anti-war? How was the senator able to elbow aside former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who spoke out against the 2002 resolution before the vote was taken, in anti-war Iowa? How is it that he now seems to be elbowing aside retired General Wesley Clark, another critic of the rush-to-war resolution, in New Hampshire? And why did the most genuinely anti-war candidate in the race, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, urge his backers in Iowa to caucus with Edwards?
One line of analysis holds that the war isn't really that big an issue. Under this theory, Democratic caucus and primary voters are not all that interested in a war that has now cost more than 500 American lives, untold Iraqi lives, and tens of billions of U.S. tax dollars. But anyone who has followed the campaign knows that is not the case, as voters regularly question candidates about the war.
Another line of analysis holds that Democrats are so obsessed with beating Bush in 2004 that they are willing to overlook any flaw, even a disagreable stance on so pivotal a concern as the war, in their search for the most electable candidate. That may explain the rise of Kerry, a four-term senator who also happens to be a decorated Vietnam War veteran. But it doesn't account for the rise of Edwards, a one-term senator who also happens to be a millionaire trial lawyer.
There is no question that Edwards works hard to presents himself as an "electable" contender. But that does not mean that he is eschewing appeals to anti-war Democrats. Indeed, while Edwards may not be an anti-war candidate, he has made complaints about the war central themes of his surging candidacy.
When Edwards and his aides gave their campaign a makeover toward the end of 2003, they radically retooled the candidate's message. At the heart of the new Edwards stump speech was an economic populist appeal designed to highlight the divide between "two Americas" -- one where the rich get all the breaks, another where working families can't get a break. New York Times columnist William Safire is right when he says that Edwards "has honed his 'two Americas' theme into the smoothest call for enforced leveling since Huey Long's 'every man a king.'" But but don't assume that Edwards is only talking about domestic economics. That smooth speech also features an anti-war profiteering rap passionate enough to warm the hearts -- and perhaps win the votes -- of even some committed anti-warriors.
"We need to end the sweetheart deals for Halliburton and stop the war profiteering in Iraq," Edwards began telling the crowds, making pointed references to Vice President Dick Cheney's former firm but also to a list of other defense contractors that have contributed heavily to George w. Bush's campaigns and that have profited heavily from his war.
While Edwards does not echo the pure anti-war rhetoric of a Dean, a Clark or, particularly, a Kucinich or an Al Sharpton, the North Carolinian does toss red meat to anti-war Democrats -- highlighting the corruptions of empire that infuriate grassroots Democrats. It is easy, and quite possibly appropriate, to be cynical about the way in which Edwards now highlights criticism of a war that he has supported more consistently even than Kerry. But voters seem to be willing to forgive Edwards, a fresh-faced and energetic contender who exudes aw-shucks optimism on the trail, more than they do the other candidates.
The anti-war profiteering rhetoric helps to explain why Edwards ran almost as well as Dean did among Iowa Democrats who said the war was their top issue. It also helps to explain why the campaign of Dennis Kucinich, the most passionately anti-war of the Democratic presidential candidates, felt comfortable urging supporters of the Ohio congressman to form caucus-night alliance that aided Edwards.
In New Hampshire, Edwards has upped the ante. After President Bush used his State of the Union address to list 17 of the 34 nations that have committed troops to help the U.S. maintain the occupation of Iraq, Edwards went on New Hampshire Public Radio and condemned the president for claiming that he has assembled a genuine coalition to maintain the occupation of Iraq. For the most part, Edwards charged, the other countries provide little more than window dressing, while the toll of U.S. casualities rises and the cost to U.S. taxpayers mounts. (Like Kerry, Edwards votes against the Bush administration's fall 2003 request for $87 billion to maintain the occupation, as did Kucinich. Of thr remaining contenders, only Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, the candidate of Democrats who don't really disagree all that much with Bush, voted for the spending bill.)
Over the weekend, as Tuesday's New Hampshire vote approached, Edwards was adding to his angry-about-the-war repertoire. Edwards leapt on statements made by David Kay, the man entrusted by the Bush administration to head the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When Kay resigned Friday, he told the Reuters news agency that he had concluded there were no stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons to be found in Iraq. Edwards immediately called for an independent commission to investigate whether the Bush administration misled the Congress when the president and White House aides were making the case for preemptive war against Iraq.
"It's a serious issue and it's why I'm calling for an independent commission to investigate the discrepancy between what's been found there and what we were told before," Edwards said of the ongoing debate over Bush's claim that the U.S. needed to attack Iraqi weapons -- or, at the least, weapons that country was very close to developing -- posed a genuine threat. Edwards still stops short of saying that Bush lied to the Congress and the American people; rather, he says, "That's exactly why we need an independent commission to get to the bottom of this."
Even as he was calling for the investigation, Edwards was ramping up that razor-sharp rhetoric about war profiteering. When Halliburton agreed on Friday to pay $6.3 million to the U.S. Army to cover for overbilling by a Kuwaiti subcontractor supplying U.S. troops in Iraq, Edwards said, "The American people know there is something wrong going on with war profiteering and Halliburton and the contracts in Iraq."
"This has got to come to an end," the senator told a crowd of 700 cheering supporters in Rochester, New Hampshire. Edwards promised them that, if elected president, he would examine all the contracts handed out by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his aides "with a magnifying glass" in a hunt to halt "the fleecing of the American people."
The annual Super Bowl game draws a huge audience of television viewers – 130 million Americans are expected to view the game February 1 -- and advertisers of all types want to reach that audience. So CBS, which will air the most-watched football game of the year, has jacked up ad rates accordingly and begun selling chunks of air time to peddlers of beer, soda pop, cars, trucks and political agendas.
But the network is not taking ads from all comers. Some political views have been judged unacceptable by CBS censors. While advertising industry sources say CBS will air a pair of advocacy commercials prepared to advance the agenda of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the network has refused to accept an advertisement prepared by critics of the man who currently occupies the White House.
The MoveOn.org Voter Fund recently conducted a "Bush in 30 Seconds" TV ad contest, in which it promised that the winning entry would be shown during the Super Bowl broadcast. MoveOn, the innovative internet-based activist community, was willing to pay the $2 million it would cost to air the ad. And no one suggests that the ad is inaccurate or inappropriate; indeed, Fox TV commentator Bill'Reilly, no fan of MoveOn, says: "It's not offensive, (it) makes a legitimate point politically."
Yet, CBS is refusing to run the MoveOn ad, claiming in the words of CBS spokesperson Dana McClintock, "We have a policy against accepting advocacy advertising." The reason? CBS told MoveOn that it does not want to trouble viewers with commercials that address "controversial issues of public importance."
The MoveOn commercial does indeed address an issue of public importance: the rapid growth of the federal deficit. But as advocacy ads go, this ad is not particularly controversial. The ad simply warns that the Bush Administration's reckless policy of cutting taxes for wealthy Americans while hiking spending is creating a huge federal budget deficit that will have to be paid off by future generations. That statement merely echoes concerns expressed by both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Just this week, more than three dozen Republican members of the House launched a campaign to get the White House to slow the rate of deficit spending.
In fairness to CBS, the MoveOn advertisement might be considered controversial by White House political czar Karl Rove and others who are offended by any criticism of the president or his policies. But if controversy is really a concern, then why would CBS consider airing advocacy commercials from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy?
At a time when millions of Americans, including federal judges, mayors, governors and members of Congress are questioning the wisdom of continuing the failed war on drugs, the Office of National Drug Control Policy advocacy ads frequently inspire controversy. Indeed, past Super Bowl commercials from the agency, which equated casual drug use with support for international terrorism, have stirred significant debate – and, yes, controversy.
So what's the real reason for the CBS decision to censor an advertisement – from MoveOn -- that raises legitimate questions about the president's approach to a pressing national concern?
"It seems to us that CBS simply defers to those it fears or from whom it wants favors – in this case, the Bush White House," argues Eli Pariser, campaign director for MoveOn.org. "This is the same CBS that recently backed down when the Republican National Committee made a stink about its mini-series on former President Reagan and his family."
Pariser notes, correctly, that Viacom -- the parent company of CBS that also owns the UPN network, MTV, Showtime, Nickelodeon, BET, Paramount Pictures, Blockbuster Video, over 175 radio stations and more than 35 local television stations -- has been in the forefront of lobbying for the lifting of Federal Communications Commission limits on media consolidation and conglomeration.
On June 2 of last year, the FCC voted 3-2 to allow networks such as CBS to dramatically expand their control over local television markets.
Even when Congress roll back the FCC rule changes, the Bush White House took the side of CBS – pressuring Republican leaders in the House and Senate to prevent votes on initiatives to retain existing ownership limits. Now, in an election year, CBS is taking the side of the Bush White House and censoring an advertisement that seeks to open a debate about the president's fiscal policies – while at the same time preparing to air a commercial that advances other policies promoted by the same president.
When it comes to censoring Super Bowl commercials, CBS is way out of bounds.
To view the MoveOn Voter Fund commercial, go to: http://www.bushin30seconds.org/
To learn more about the controversy and the fight over the FCC rule changes, go to: http://mediareform.net/media/
To learn more about lobbying of the FCC and Congress by CBS and other major communications corporations, go to http://www.publicintegrity.org/dtaweb/index.asp?L1=20&L2=21&L3=0&L4=0&L5...
DUBUQUE, Iowa -- "We got beat by the nuns," said Carol Petrick, a disappointed supporter of Howard Dean as it became evident that her candidate was going to get whipped by John Kerry when the votes were recorded at Dubuque's Precinct 13 caucus.
For all the talk about how Dean would pull new voters out for the caucuses, only a dozen people turned up to support the former Vermont governor who until last night was widely viewed as the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. A few more showed up for former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, who had until recent days been seen as Dean's most serious competitor in Iowa. But when the final tally was taken, neither Dean nor Gephardt had enough supporters in the Windsor Park apartment complex's community room to meet the threshold for winning delegates from Precinct 13.
Instead, the caucus was dominated by supporters of Kerry. While a number of those who caucused for Kerry were members of the Sisters of St. Francis religious order, which is headquartered on this heavily Catholic city's north side, the reality was that support for the Massachusetts senator ran broad and deep in the working-class neighborhood. In that sense, Precinct 13 proved to be a microcosm for all of Iowa, where Kerry scored a major victory in Monday night's first-in-the-nation caucus voting.
"This looks like the start of something big," said Kerry backer Clark Zivojnovich, a union electrician who delighted in noting that most of the people caucusing in Precinct 13 wore white stickers that read, "I'm standing for John Kerry -- He's Fighting for Us."
"People are starting to realize that John Kerry's the only one who can beat George Bush," added Zivojnovich. "And the one thing that matters most to Democrats in Iowa is beating Bush."
While Gephardt and Dean beat each other to pieces in a bitter battle for the support of Iowa Democrats, Kerry surged by arguing that, as a decorated Vietnam veteran, he was best positioned to take on Bush in a fall race that could turn on national security issues.
Second place in Precinct 13 went to the rapidly-rising campaign of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who presented himself as an optimistic populist who was more interested in talking about economic justice than in tearing down his opponents.
"Here Gephardt and Dean were supposed to be the frontrunners, and they just collapsed. It's all Kerry and Edwards," mused Tom Tully, the chairman of this one caucus out of the almost 1,993 that were held across Iowa Monday night.
Precinct 13 was relatively representative of the rest of Iowa. Kerry stunned pollsters and pundits by winning 38 percent of the vote at caucuses across the state, while Edwards secured an equally unexpected 32 percent. Dean mustered only 18 percent. And Gephardt, who won the Iowa caucuses in 1988, secured just 10 percent and began making arrangements to drop out of the race for the Democratic nomination. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, the only other candidate who campaigned aggressively in Iowa, won just 1 percent of the recorded votes, as many of his backers threw their support to Edwards as part of a last-minute deal between the candidates.
The caucus in Precinct 13 followed the same pattern as caucuses across Iowa. As the 6:30 p.m. starting time approached, 145 Democrats from the working class neighborhood followed signs with arrows directing them to the caucus room. Tom Tully reminding everyone that, under the arcane rules of the state party, a candidate had to have the support of 15 percent of those present to win delegates to the county convention -- the next step in naming Iowa's delegation to this summer's Democratic National Convention in Boston. He then pulled out a calculator and informed the assembled Democrats that, on the basis of last night's turnout in Precinct 13, a candidate would need 21.75 votes to secure delegates.
Tully rounded that number upward to 22 and announced that it was time for everyone to divide into candidate groups. There were so many Kerry backers that they had to move into an adjoining hallway, which they filled. Inside the room, it became clear that only Edwards had met the threshold, although Gephardt's backers -- many of them union members and retirees -- were close.
That's when the lobbying began.
Sister Gwen Hennessey, a veteran peace and social-justice activist, quickly led the nine Kucinich backers into an alliance with the Edwards backers -- who agreed to allow Sister Gwen to fill one of their delegate slots. A Dean backer made a last-minute ideological appeal to the Kucinich group, noting that Dean and Kucinich had been outspoken critics of the war in Iraq while Edwards voted for the October, 2002, Congressional resolution that authorized President Bush to wage the war: "Are you sure you want to go for Edwards? Dean is antiwar," she said. But the Kucinich backers, noting that Edwards had echoed at least some of their man's populist anti-corporate message, stuck with the North Carolinian.
Most of the Gephardt backers went with Edwards, as well. And the Dean backers, many of whom admitted that they were stunned by the low turnout for their candidate, split among the Kerry and Edwards camps. "I'm really surprised," said Anastasia Bissell, a librarian who proudly wore her blue Dean sticker. "There were so many people at the Dean rallies. But Kerry had Kennedy," she added, referring to Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, an icon among Iowa liberals, who campaigned in Dubuque at Kerry's side.
Bissell complained that the other candidates, and the media, had been brutal in their treatment of Dean. But, as she moved over to cast her lot with the Kerry group, Bissell was already reconciling herself to the reality of a caucus night that had not turned out as she had expected. "I do think that Kerry is electable," she said. "And I do like the fact that he was a war hero in Vietnam who then came home and opposed that war. I think he understands that we need to get our troops out of Iraq, and that's really important."
A moment later, the final vote of Precinct 13 was recorded: 91 for Kerry to 54 for Edwards. That meant Kerry would have seven delegates to the county convention, while four would be counted for Edwards.
The Precinct 13 caucus goers then voted unanimously for a resolution that declared "President Bush led the United States into war in Iraq on the basis of a morally bankrupt policy of preemptive military action against states on his military list" and called for turning over responsibility for stabilizing Iraq to the United Nations. They gave equally overwhelming support to resolutions condemning the development of new nuclear weapons, supporting universal health care and favoring the interests of family farmers over those of corporate agribusiness.
"We may not have won the contest among the candidates, but we won the issues," said Sister Gwen, the Kucinich backer who ended up caucusing with Edwards.
Anastasia Bissell, the Dean backer who finished up in the Kerry camp, was equally philosophical. "I think this is probably what the founders had in mind for America -- this kind of consensus building. People come into a room, and we all disagree. But some of us give up something to achieve a greater goal. And, of course, the greater goal for all of us Democrats is to beat George Bush."
GUTTENBERG, Iowa – John Forbes Kerry, who has moved into the frontrunner position in key polls of Iowans who will set the course of the Democratic presidential campaign at Monday night's critical caucuses, does not mind being confused with another "JFK."
When the Massachusetts senator appeared before Democrats in this Mississippi River town north of Dubuque the other day, he invited questions from the crowd. Barbara Pape, of Guttenberg, raised her hand and, when Kerry recognized her, she began, "Senator Kennedy... Oh, I meant Senator Kerry."
The crowd laughed, and so did Kerry, who quickly interjected, "That's alright. Many, many people do it. It doesn't bother me at all."
In fact, Kerry is doing everything he can to play up his Kennedy connections in eastern Iowa, a heavily-Catholic region of working-class communities and rural areas where it is not uncommon for Democrats to hang photographs of former President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the nation's first Roman Catholic president, next to images of the Virgin Mary and their Irish flags.
That's smart politics in these parts. And it seems to be working.
It is on the basis of his support in Dubuque and eastern Iowa that Kerry, who has worked the city and surrounding counties assiduously for more than a year, has resurrected his campaign. Just a month ago, pollsters and pundits were writing Kerry off. The Massachusetts senator who, like JFK, is a decorated US Navy combat veteran with a record of service as a senator from Massachusetts, entered the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination as a presumed frontrunner. But he fell far behind former Vermont Governor Howard Dean in polls of Democrats nationally and in Iowa.
Now, however, the Des Moines Register poll released Sunday shows Kerry in first place with 26 percent support, followed by North Carolina Sen. John Edwards with 23 percent, Dean with 20 percent and former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt with 18 percent.
The Iowa caucuses are notoriously difficult to poll, and Kerry's organization on the ground is not thought to be as strong as operations put in place by the Dean and Gaphardt campaigns. But if Kerry does win Monday night, he will be back in serious contention for the nomination. And it could well be the Kennedy connection in general, and its special resonance in eastern Iowa, that puts him there.
Kerry recognized early on that it is impossible to overplay the Kennedy card in Dubuque. The city's biggest shopping mall is named "Kennedy." So is one of the elementary schools, as well as a major thoroughfare that runs through town. And, campaign memorabilia from the presidential runs of John. Bobby and Teddy Kennedy seems to be everywhere.
"In Dubuque, a lot of people still think that ‘Kennedy' is another word for ‘Democrat,'" explains Michael Breitbach, a native eastern Iowan who runs Breitbach's Farmers' Market Food Store in downtown Dubuque.
So, in addition to visiting the region repeatedly, and in addition to adding an extra dose of Kennedy references to his stump speech whenever he's in the area, Kerry has run a Kennedy-style campaign in Dubuque and the towns north and south of it along the Mississippi. His local campaign literature tells Dubuque-area voters that "People You Trust… Trust John Kerry" and lists endorsements from local Democratic officials named Connolly, Connors and Flynn. It also reminds caucus goers that the senator, who shares the other JFK's Catholocism, is backed by Sister Marlene McDonnell, Sister Corrine Murray, Sister Mary Ellen Dolan and other well-known nuns from Dubuque.
Needless to say, Kerry's Senate record of strong support for abortion rights gets little emphasis here. Instead, the Kerry campaign has emphasized bread-and-butter economic issues and his ties to a certain Massachusetts family.
Kerry has repeatedly brought his fellow Massachusetts senator, Edward Kennedy, to eastern Iowa to campaign for him. Grabbing a line from Howard Dean, Kerry introduced Kennedy at a Sunday night rally in Waterloo by declaring, "This man is not just the conscience of the Senate, the lion of the Senate ... but the undisputed, clear leader of the democratic wing of the Democratic party."
When Kennedy made his second visit to Dubuque on Kerry's behalf the other day, 600 people packed into a local hall. And Kerry, who worked on Kennedy's first campaign for the Senate in 1962, got an "almost-family" blessing from the last of the Kennedy brothers.
Recalling that eastern Iowans were enthusiastic backers of his brother John's presidential campaign in 1960, and of his brother Bobby's campaign in 1968, Kennedy noted that he lost the state when he sought the presidency himself in 1980. He said all would be forgiven if Dubuque Democrats delivered for Kerry on caucus night.
"You are going to have three out of four, and I'm going to forgive you," Kennedy told the crowd. "I'm telling you I want to see every one of you show up at those caucuses, or I'll never forgive you. For the rest of my life, I'll never forgive you!"
Then, Kennedy introduced a candidate with the initials, "JFK." And the Dubuque crowd, properly encouraged, went wild.
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet's name cannot be found on the list of candidates contending on Monday for votes at Iowa's first-in-the-nation Democratic presidential caucuses. But he is the star of this campaign season.
Everywhere Bartlet goes in Iowa, he draws the biggest crowds. When he steps onto a stage, people start chanting "Bartlet." Reporters hang on his every word. Children ask for his autograph. Adults want to know his thoughts about the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act and religion in politics.
Bartlet is, in every sense, the man of the moment.
Unfortunately, he is also a fiction.
"President Bartlet is a fantasy," explains actor Martin Sheen, who plays the character on the NBC political drama, "The West Wing." "Howard Dean is a reality."
Sheen is an enthusiastic supporter of the former Vermont governor, who is locked in a tight four-way contest going into Monday's caucuses with former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
The latest Reuters/MSNBC/Zogby Poll, released Saturday morning, has Kerry with 23 percent, Dean with 22 percent, Gephardt with 19 percent and Edwards with 18 percent. That represents a slight drop for Kerry from the previous day's polling, no movement for Gaphardt and last-minute surges for Dean and Edwards.
Dean will try to improve his position Sunday, with a quick trip to Plains, Georgia, where he is scheduled to attend church with former President Jimmy Carter. Getting a blessing from the man who put the Iowa caucuses on the map when he scored an upset win here in 1976 --and who remains popular in the first-caucus state--is seen by Dean strategists as an extension of their Iowa campaigning. They hope to get a bounce on Monday, when pictures of Dean and Carter will, undoubtedly, be splashed across the front pages of caucus-day newspapers.
But Dean may end up getting just as much of a bounce from another "president."
As the caucuses approached, "West Wing's" Sheen left sunny southern California for snowy Sioux Falls, Mason City and Davenport, where he campaigned almost as vigorously as the candidate himself.
In Iowa, where campaigns that could be made or broken by Monday's voting are pulling out all the stops, celebrity backers are turning up even in the smallest towns. The candidates hope that a little star power will sway wavering Democrats in their direction.
The fast-finishing campaign of John Kerry dispatched songwriter Carole King to make the pitch for him in a Dubuque coffeehouse and an Indianola living room, where she autographed albums, played "You've Got a Friend" on the host family's piano and exclaimed that, "The beauty of this, for me, is coming into a real American town meeting." Dennis Kucinich campaigned across the state last year with country singer Willie Nelson and will close his pre-caucus campaigning by taking the stage Sunday night with a singer half Nelson's age, Ani DiFranco, in Des Moines. Even Dick Gephardt has been appearing in the closing days of the campaign with a "star" suitable to the labor-backed candidate's union hall rallies, International Brotherhood of Teamsters President James Hoffa Jr., the son of legendary labor boss Jimmy Hoffa.
In New Hampshire, the first primary state, filmmaker Michael Moore is expected to hit the trail for retired Gen. Wesley Clark Saturday. And there is talk that Clark might yet get the biggest of his superstar backers, Madonna, stumping on his behalf.
But only one candidate for president has a "president" working the campaign-trail as his surrogate. And, even if he is a make-believe commander-in-chief, Bartlet, er, Sheen is making the most of his association with the White House.
This veteran star of stage and screen knows exactly how to deliver an applause line.
"As the acting president of the United States, I am here to announce that next Monday, Jan. 19, is Howard Dean Day in America!" Sheen declared in Council Bluffs. He said pretty much the same thing in Cedar Falls. And in Cedar Rapids. The response was absolutely consistent: Thunderous applause.
For Sheen, however, this is not just a theatrical performance.
A veteran campaigner for peace and economic justice, the actor got involved in politics long before writer Aaron Sorkin put him in charge of the West Wing. Sheen was an outspoken foe of former President Ronald Reagan's funding of military dictators and Contra rebels in Central America in the 1980s. He has been arrested more than once in protests against weapons systems and the arms race in general. He has marched with farmworkers, trade unionists and antiwar activists. And he is no stranger to the real world of electioneering. He campaigned across the country for Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000. And he was one of the first prominent players in Hollywood to endorse Dean for the Democratic party's 2004 nomination.
Sheen announced his support for Dean a year ago, when the Vermonter barely rated an asterick in most polls. Like the vast majority of Dean's early backers, Sheen was attracted by the candidate's outspoken opposition to President Bush's preparations for war with Iraq. Sheen, who appeared in a MoveOn.org-sponsored television commercial encouraging Americans to lobby Congress to block Bush's invasion plans, says, "Dean was against the war when we needed someone. That's why I'm with him now."
Sheen delights in Dean's angry denounciations of "Republican-lite" Washington Democrats who have compromised with the Bush administration and the GOP leadership in Congress. Pointing to the fist-pumping, ready-to-rumble crowds at a Dean rally in Des Moines. Sheen declared, "This is the Democratic party I was born into. The party was taken away from us, and now we're getting it back."
Counting himself in with the army of Dean volunteers that has swarmed over the first-caucus state, including large contingents from surrounding states that began arriving by the busload Saturday, Sheen echoes the just-short-of-messianic language of the former Vermont governor's most fervent backers. "We've awakened a movement," he says. "And we've made this election meaningful -- a real referendum on the direction of our country."
Sheen dismisses charges that Dean is too volatile, or too extreme in his style or his stands, to beat Bush next November. "These guys in the White House are in for a surprise if they think they're going to roll over this guy," says the actor, who has no problem with Dean's much-discussed anger. "Anger moves you to justice," says Sheen. "It's a great energy, and it allows you to do great good."
So, is Dean comparable to President Bartlet?
"There are a lot of similarities," Sheen says, noting that the president he plays on TV is, like Dean, a New Englander with a penchant for making bold, often controversial, statements. But, he adds, "President Bartlet is a fictional character. Howard Dean is a reality. And that makes all the difference in the world."