“Dean in the Danger Zone” Commentary by Howard Fineman, Newsweek Online, 1/8/04
Joe Trippi was on my mobile phone. I had called him for some poll numbers and he sounded, understandably, hassled. Not frantic, but stressed. He should be.
As Howard Dean’s campaign manager, Trippi has masterfully guided his man to the brink of the Democratic nomination. But Trippi has been around a long time, and he knows that in any campaign, especially a presidential nomination race, things can change faster than you can shout “Hart Upsets Mondale.” If you’re the front-runner at this point in a campaign, time seems to slow down to an agonizing crawl. Election Day can’t come soon enough for you. Trippi knows that leads can crumble, an unexpected rival can rise up suddenly and that voters do what they want, not what pundits expect.
And under the pressure of approaching Armageddon, campaigns make mistakes. Dean’s own errors as a candidate and public speaker are well-known, but generally have been rendered harmless by the tactical and strategic skill of his campaign. Until now. For the first time, I’m seeing the Dean Team off its stride, behaving like mere mortals.
The hardest thing to do in business is to close a sale, and it’s the same with politics. Dean’s numbers were holding steady in Iowa, Trippi insisted, but there was too much of what the pollsters call “volatility” to suit him. “The numbers are a mess,” he said, meaning that things were still uncomfortably fluid. John Kerry was moving up fast, Dick Gephardt was sinking just as fast, and even John Edwards seemed to be making a late move. Front-runners don’t like that much motion underneath, even if they are ahead.
What has the campaign done wrong? Here’s my armchair general’s list, for what it’s worth:
SMALL LOGISTICAL MISTAKES
NOT SETTLING INTERNAL TAX DEBATE
HYPE OUT OF HAND
TALKING UP KERRY
THE BLOG IS NOT THE WORLD
I get the sense sometimes that the Deanies live in their own world—I call it Dean World—and that if it is OK with the Blog, then they think they are fine. It’s true that no single “gaffe” hurt Dean much, and, for the most part, their importance was dismissed by the chatterers on his various Web sites. But there is a larger universe out there, not just in the Democratic Party, but in the country, and it’s clear that the small cuts have added up to some loss of blood. The campaign was born on the Blog, but it can’t sustain itself there. Trippi knows that, which is why he is so nervous.