DAVID BRODER: Dean bloodies himself into Iowa

DES MOINES – Howard Dean is now racing the clock to see what comes first – nomination or detonation.

The former Vermont governor is closing in on the honor of leading the Democratic ticket at the same time that his critics and rivals are busily converting his own utterances into controversies that can blow his chances to smithereens. The nightmare possibility for the Democrats is that the two might happen at once – that Dean will polish off his opponents just as he commits the gaffe of all gaffes, the one for which no repairs are possible.

It is hard to recall another challenger who has simultaneously outdistanced, outorganized and outmaneuvered the other candidates as thoroughly and swiftly as Dean has done, and at the same time has so thoroughly demonstrated a penchant for embarrassing himself.

Whatever happens the rest of the way, it is clear that the doctor has an instinct for the political jugular – other people's and his own. Dean has been scoring despite himself – and because of himself.

It was near genius for him to grasp as early as he did – well before the Democratic fiasco in the midterm election of 2002 – that grass-roots party activists were disgusted by the congressional party leaders' futile efforts to finesse both the tax issue and the war with Iraq and were wide open to being recruited by a dogmatic, even demagogic critic of President Bush and the Washington establishment.

It was brilliant of Dean and his aides to make the Internet the most effective organizing and fund-raising mechanism the Democrats have seen since John Kennedy's sisters used tea parties with Mama Rose to recruit willing workers.

Those insights have put Dean into an exceptionally favorable position in the opening contests, here in Iowa on Jan. 19 and in New Hampshire on Jan. 27. With nine candidates contesting for votes, he doesn't have to persuade a majority to support him. He just has to turn out the true believers.

Even modest plurality wins in those races would translate into a wealth of favorable publicity, and with more money to spend than any of his opponents, Dean could well run the table of the early February contests before anyone else could effectively mobilize a counterattack.

Because this possibility is now so evident, the efforts to detonate a political bombshell under his express-train candidacy have become steadily more frantic. The nationally televised debate here on Sunday, sponsored by The Des Moines Register and Iowa Public Television, was essentially a series of attempts to make Dean explain – or recant – some of the remarkable things he has said in the last few weeks.

In the area of foreign policy, his rivals say Dean has demonstrated his inexperience and naivete. To argue, as Dean did, on the day after Saddam Hussein's capture by American troops, that jailing the Iraqi dictator left America “no safer” was a classically ill-timed remark. Whatever the ultimate judgment of history, that was a day for celebrating the success of the manhunt for this thoroughly malignant character.

His remark to the Concord Monitor that he did not want to prejudge the guilt or innocence of Osama bin Laden left Dean arguing a legalistic point that once again set him apart from public opinion. As he later acknowledged, no real doubt attaches to the al Qaeda leader's role in masterminding the attacks that took nearly 3,000 lives at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Dean himself later said that a death sentence would be just punishment when bin Laden is found. His effort to rationalize his earlier remark on the grounds that he might be president when bin Laden is brought to trial and that a government official “must uphold the rule of law” put a hypothetical barrier in the way of identifying himself with a near-universal sentiment among the American people.

When rival candidates criticized Dean's utterances in the debate, he did not erupt nor did he bother to extricate himself. He simply put the same words back on the record in a more benign context – hoping to damp down the explosive potential.

Were these isolated incidents, the damage might be minimal. But Dean has found so many ways in a short time to set people's teeth on edge – with his comments about the Confederate flag, about his struggle to bring himself to talk religion in the South, about his variant positions on Medicare and trade and other issues – that this is clearly a pattern.

The voting can't come too soon for this accident-prone star.