Howard Dean Lights a Fire Under Democratic Voters

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, August 26, 2003, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: From relative obscurity to leading Democratic presidential candidate, Vermont Governor Howard Dean (search) has lit a fire under a number of voters. He is gathering the bucks for a serious race, raking in millions in campaign contributions, but the election is still over a year away.

Jim Kessler is the president of the political consulting firm Definition Strategies (search). Jim, that's today's big question. Is Howard Dean peaking too soon?

JIM KESSLER, DEFINITION STRATEGIES: Well, some candidates never peak at all. I don't think he's peaking too soon. I think the Howard Dean phenomenon is real and I would say right now that he would be the frontrunner in my view to win the nomination.

GIBSON: I think we have a polling result to put on the screen that shows in New Hampshire what the support is. And Dean is at 38 percent today. This is a Zogby poll. In February it was 13 percent, June, 22. Kerry at 17 percent today. As you can see, he was higher back then. Now, on the other hand, Dean is a Vermont governor, next door to New Hampshire. You kind of expect him to do well there, but the conventional wisdom always is a year and months away from Labor Day, you don't want to be a house-a-fire, which he is at the moment.

KESSLER: I agree that there are candidacies that peak early, and it's a long race. It is a marathon. Being in first place after three miles doesn't mean you are going to be in first place after 26 miles. But I think that one of the things that's happening with the Dean campaign and his candidacy is that he has captured something that none of the other candidates have, and that is a prevailing sentiment among a large number of Democratic primary voters. That sentiment is anger. They're angry about hanging chads in Florida. They're angry about Iraq. They're angry about scandals at Enron (search). And he's the only candidate, frankly, that has tapped into that anger. The other ...

GIBSON: Would you call this campaign, "It's Bush, stupid?"

KESSLER: Well, I think so. I would say maybe, “It's anger, stupid." I think what's happening out there — maybe this is the difference from being a governor and a senator. Senators tend to move on and see every issue through three different ways. And governors, they have to make a decision.

GIBSON: The other thing about Howard Dean's support — there was just a rally here in New York last night at Bryant Park, and he dashed out to Oregon and he is going around. You've got to look at these crowds. They're fairly young or they're aging hippies. They're white. There's no diversity there. You don't see African-Americans. You don't see Hispanics. This is widely reported by the people covering his campaign. So if he taps into the left wing of the Democratic Party — angry young white liberals — does that win an election?

KESSLER: Well, I don't think that wins the general election, but I think that can take you pretty far in the nominating process, because that's a lot of who the Democratic primary voters are, particularly in some of the early states. He will have to do better among minority voters. He will have to reach out to blue-collar voters as well. But right now, he has got tremendous support among a strong constituency of the Democratic Party that can take him very far, and maybe to the finish line.

GIBSON: Okay, what does he stand for? We know he is against Bush. He is angry. He points his finger. He yells. The campaign is called, "In your face with Howard Dean." But what does he stand for? Does he stand for a strong military that can confront problems just like Bush has done? Or is it a military that stays in the barracks and we spend the money on healthcare? What is he for?

KESSLER: Well, I think you would have to ask his campaign. I'm not affiliated with his campaign.

GIBSON: Maybe you know what it is, because I'm still confused.

KESSLER: What I think he is doing successfully is that he is successfully connecting with voters' anger and voter angst about all sorts of things that are going on with Washington. I do think that right now he's focusing on George Bush, which seems to be a strategy that's working. Let's face it, among the Democratic candidates, there isn't a whole lot of difference in their positions. They're all for expanded healthcare. They're all for doing more on education. Most of them are for some sort of different strategy with Iraq. The positions are very similar among the Democratic candidacies. It's the way that you are communicating to voters. He is communicating to them. I mean, they — voters seem to hear what he is standing for.

GIBSON: All right, political consultant Jim Kessler, Jim, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

KESSLER: Thank you.

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