WASHINGTON – Howard Dean won a key endorsement for president last week from one influential Democratic governor, but opinions vary over whether he will need more public backing from his former colleagues in order to solidify his support within the party.
"That’s the major difference between [George W.] Bush’s non-incumbent candidacy in 1999 and Dean’s non-incumbent candidacy in 2003 — Bush was encouraged to get into the race by his fellow governors. In Dean’s case, he’s been out there all by himself," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
On Friday, Dean, who served as Vermont's governor from 1991 to 2002, received the support of New Jersey Democratic Gov. James E. McGreevey (search), who runs the most densely-populated state in the union. Reports hint that McGreevey may be leading a string of gubernatorial nods in coming weeks. Former Gov. Lowell Weicker of Connecticut officially threw his support to Dean in July.
Some analysts say Dean is in a perfect position to tap the crucial connections he made as head of the National Governors Association (search) from 1994 to 1995 and chairman of the Democratic Governors Association (search) from 1997 to 1998.
"Many of them are for Dean," said DGA spokeswoman Nicole Harburger, referring to past and present Democratic governors. "I think a lot of governors have a lot of good things to say about Dean, they just haven’t made official endorsements."
Harburger said Dean's service as DGA head and subsequently as recruitment chairman from 1998 to 2002, has been called "engaging and enthusiastic" by his peers. Those same fans, according to Harburger, said Dean "knew the ins and outs of the politics in the states more than anyone else."
Several Democratic governors in key electoral states — like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona — have said positive things about Dean in recent weeks, but a recent canvassing of these and other governors’ offices indicate a general unwillingness to make any endorsements for any of the nine Democratic candidates at this time.
"Each governor has his or her own reason for not making an endorsement," Harburger said. "But I don’t think any decision they make should be read as a slight against any candidate."
A few former and present governors are backing other Democrats. Former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (search) is the national chairwoman for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s campaign.
Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina has received the endorsements of North Carolina Gov. Michael F. Easley, former North Carolina Gov. James Hunt and former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes.
Missouri Gov. Bob Holden has endorsed Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt.
Democratic Sen. Thomas Carper, who previously served as Delaware's governor, has thrown his backing behind Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman.
"Endorsements haven’t played a big role in this primary," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network (search), who noted that the nine-way race has allowed many prominent Democrats to sit back and "stay neutral" until the primary screening process has taken its course.
Comparatively, during his presidential campaign, Bush, who was in his second term as governor of Texas, had won by November 1999 the endorsement of 25 of 31 GOP governors.
"One thing that impressed me from the beginning is that many of [Bush's] peers jumped on the bandwagon early," said Ruth Dwyer, a former GOP state legislator in Vermont, who ran two unsuccessful gubernatorial races against Dean in 1998 and 2000.
"You’re not seeing that with Howard, and he had plenty of opportunities to network with other governors and associate with them," she said. "I always got the impression that they didn’t like him."
Dean’s campaign declined comment for this story.
Having a governor’s exclusive support means access to their statewide popularity, fund-raising prowess and political machinery. Any endorsements Dean can get will help position him for the upcoming primaries, Harburger said.
"People tend to trust their governors more than the folks who are zipping in and out of Washington," she said. "They have great relationships and great political operations."
But not everyone thinks governors’ endorsements are critical to the success or failure of a primary candidate.
"It is the voters in the early primary states that count, and Dean is leading [the candidates] in all" of those states, said Dick Morris, political strategist and former senior adviser to former President Bill Clinton.
Morris added that Republicans are generally more concerned with governors’ endorsements than Democratic candidates.
"The Republican Party is a monarchic institution where legitimacy counts for everything," Morris said. "But the Dems are different and delight in overthrowing the power structure. For Dems, [gubernatorial endorsements] make you a target."
While Republican pollster Jim McLaughlin agreed that such endorsements might be overrated, he said Dean’s lack of them says a lot about his electability.
"They believe he’s a bad candidate for the general election," said McLaughlin. "The Democratic primary electorate is made up of left-wing liberals. He’s their nominee. That’s why the governors aren’t supporting him, they think he’s out of touch with mainstream voters."