WASHINGTON – Democrat Howard Dean has drawn new faces to politics, many of them young, middle-class Web surfers. Few of those faces are of color.
The presidential candidate has seized the momentum in the nine-way primary race with an Internet-driven campaign that has attracted thousands of supporters and millions of dollars. But Dean's success with minorities, a crucial constituency for any Democratic candidate, has been limited and political analysts wonder whether he can broaden his appeal.
"I think it's going to be difficult for him to connect," said David Bositis, a political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies (search), a think tank focused on black issues. "He doesn't have any history with blacks."
Dean, a Park Avenue-raised, Yale-educated internist, practiced in Burlington, Vt., and later served as the state's governor for 11 years. Vermont has a population that is nearly 98 percent white, according to the latest Census data.
Throughout the campaign, much of Dean's support has come from the Internet, either through his own Web site or Meetup.com, a point of contact for those looking for Dean gatherings. Extensive computer use, according to recent surveys, is more common among whites than minorities.
More than six in 10 whites describe themselves as Internet users, while about half of blacks say they use it, according to Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project (search). Among frequent Internet users, the digital divide widens between whites and minorities, with 60 percent of whites and 40 percent of blacks who go online saying they do so often.
Beyond the source of support, two issues that could prove problematic for Dean are his opposition to expanding gun-control laws and his decision, while governor, to sign a civil-unions bill.
Gun control is popular among inner-city residents faced with high crime rates. And while some equate discrimination based on sexual orientation with racial discrimination, many blacks do not see those prejudices in the same terms, viewing the matter through the prism of religion.
A recent Pew poll showed blacks were more likely than whites to oppose gay marriage — 64 percent to 51 percent.
"That might be a sticking point," said Alan Smith-Hicks, a black electrical engineer attending a Meetup session for Dean in Baltimore last week. "They're concerned he's too liberal, that he's going to make gay marriage a federal law."
Minority support for the candidates will be at the forefront Tuesday night as the nine Democrats gather in Baltimore for a presidential debate sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus and Fox News.
To be sure, Dean faces the same problems as many of the other major candidates in the crowded primary field.
"At some point, he's got to come to terms with it," William Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University (search), said about minority outreach. "The good news is that none of the top-tier candidates are doing any better with minority voters than he is."
Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said Dean has a chance of winning Hispanic support because "there's not a candidate now who has obvious appeal to Latinos."
Asked why most of his supporters, particularly at the Meetup sessions, are white, Dean readily acknowledged that his support has been from the ground up, while attracting minorities must be done from the top down.
"You've got to go to the leadership in those communities. You can't just do the grass roots without the blessing of the leaders," Dean said last week.
The Dean campaign is trying to improve its appeal among blacks, Asians and Hispanics, with ads in South Carolina directed at the state's black population and the hiring of several aides with experience in minority outreach.
"The Dean campaign is now reaching out beyond what I call the flower children. They're reaching out to the rainbow now," said Donna Brazile, campaign manager to Al Gore in the 2000 election.
On Tuesday, Dean picked up the endorsement of six Democrats on the District of Columbia Council. The support should boost his chances when the majority-black district holds its nonbinding presidential primary Jan. 13.
Said Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi, last week: "We understand we need to do considerable outreach. That is the next step."
In Birmingham, Ala., nearly three-fourths of the residents are black. Last week, about 40 people attended a Meetup session at an upscale coffee shop in a mostly white, trendy enclave miles from the predominantly black, heavily Democratic western neighborhoods of Birmingham.
The crowd included college students, young professionals, artists and a few middle-aged business people. It was mostly white, except for an Asian woman and a black man who came in late, said little and left early.
The lack of diversity troubled some.
"It was like this at the last two I attended," said David White, a white insurance company employee.
S.I. Reasoning, an artist and musician, said the Meetups aren't reaching Alabama blacks, many of whom are poor. "The early stages of this have been done by the Internet," he said. "It is still very much the land of wealthier people."
Clifford Simpson, 30, said Dean supporters have to get out of the coffeehouses and personally reach out to minorities if they really want to broaden their base.
"We can sit here and send e-mails and talk all day, but it's not going to happen until we get out and talk to people in their communities," Simpson said.
About a hundred Howard Dean supporters packed a coffee shop in downtown Baltimore last Wednesday night. Most of the faces were white, but there were a handful — maybe a dozen — of minorities scattered about.
Bill Mangana, 61, a black caterer from Baltimore, says he likes Dean's stance on gay rights, health care and the economy.
"He has a broad economic plan. He speaks directly. He talks straight," Mangana said. "If he sends some envoys to the churches where black folks congregate, to get his message out, he'll start capturing people's imagination."
Linh Tran, 27, a graduate student in English at Johns Hopkins University, whose parents are Vietnamese immigrants, said Dean has been unfairly painted as a candidate only of white, anti-war New Englanders.
Tran said she has been to several Dean rallies. "They're grossly misrepresented as being all white," Tran said. "I never feel that I'm at the Republican National Convention, and the camera is going to pan to me whenever they say the word 'minority."'
At Ben's Chili Bowl in a racially mixed neighborhood in Washington, the Dean Meetup crowd of about 100 in the back room was mostly white, though diners in the front of the landmark restaurant were about evenly split between black and white. The population in the city is slightly more than 60 percent black.
Dorothy Miller, a retired social worker, said she came to the Meetup because she opposed the Iraq war and had read "there were no African-Americans and no older people" at the sessions.
Vince Farquharson, a black computer programmer, said the campaign would have to hold meetings in predominantly black Southeast Washington, not in parts of the city on the fringe of Washington's black neighborhoods.
He said that when he lived in that area, none of his neighbors had access to the Internet.
In Santa Fe, N.M., about 100 people crammed into a coffee shop for the Meetup session — and a chance to meet the candidate himself. Dean stood on a makeshift stage to deliver his standard stump speech.
David Gomez, a native American, said he noticed he was the only face of color in the crowd, and he hopes that will soon change. "I'll be doing what I can do to help him with outreach, to help him have a more diverse base."
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is Hispanic, said Dean is doing the best thus far of the candidates to appeal to his state's Hispanic activists, but he said the progress is still fresh, and Dean's rivals, John Kerry and Dick Gephardt, also have done well.
"The Hispanic vote, which is a big part of the Democratic Party, is still making up its mind."