At a lunch stop in Amana, Iowa last week, Democratic candidate and medical doctor Howard Dean pointed out to a group of local voters that he hasn't practiced medicine for 12 years. Dean often jokes that because of his shift away from medicine and into politics, when he gives out free medical advice on the stump, voters are getting just what they paid for. But on Saturday afternoon, just moments before the candidate was scheduled to attend a rally at Central Campus in Des Moines, the doctor was called to duty.
Jake Edwards, a 49-year-old recently hired staffer from Spencer, Iowa, was struck by an epileptic seizure in the parking lot across from Central Campus. Dr. Dean, talking with aides nearby, soon came to the scene and crouched by Edwards until an ambulance arrived. Dean held the hand and head of his staff member.
Once the staffer/patient was securely in the hands of paramedics, Dean stepped back from the scene. Moments later, he was inside the rally being cheered on by more than 2,000 supporters in preparation for Saturday night's Jefferson Jackson dinner, a sort of unofficial kick-off to the campaign season in Iowa.
This year's Iowa JJ dinner was emceed by Sen. Hillary Clinton and featured six candidates: Gephardt, Kerry, Edwards, Kucinich, Braun and Dean.
Prior to the event, Rep. Gephardt held an outdoor rally with hundreds of screaming supporters and Teamsters trucks blasting their horns. The veteran Missouri congressman worked the crowd up with an energetic speech emphasizing his roots among the working class. The candidate and his supporters marched across the street together into the dinner event about 15 minutes before the Dean caravan arrived.
One Dean aide who attended the event with the governor in 2002, said that last year they had a presence of fewer than five people.
Oh, what a difference a year can make! This year, Dean rolled up heavy to the event with more than 40 busses of supporters in tow. His entrance to the hall was a wild scene that seemed to fit the kind of week Dean had.
Late last week, Dean announced he would opt out of federal matching funds, making him the first Democratic presidential candidate ever to do so. On Wednesday, he received the backing of two of the most politically active and racially diverse unions in the country, the SEIU and AFSCME. AFSCME President Gerald McEntee is widely regarded as being a factor in helping Bill Clinton secure the Democratic nomination in 1992. "This man from Vermont has the best chance to beat Bush," McEntee said.
After the dual endorsement, many members of the press began treating the primary as a done deal, claiming Dean was all but unstoppable. So the candidate took pains to play down his frontrunner status. "I never expected to be in this position when I started the campaign," Dean told reporters Saturday morning while sitting in the living room of an Iowa supporter. He pointed out that despite the various polls and fund-raising results that seem to be in his favor, so far, not a single vote has been cast.
Still, Dean is acting more and more the frontrunner. When pressed by reporters to comment on Sen. John Kerry's decision to opt out of federal financing, the governor declined to comment, saying he would wait for his office in Burlington to release a statement. One reporter pressed further and asked why he didn't just say what he thought. Dean's answer: "Because I'm learning that's an increasing liability."
Yes, even in Vermont, they have politicians.
On Saturday evening, the Dean caravan from the pre-dinner rally to the actual JJ dinner at the Des Moines Veterans Memorial Auditorium was so large that the procession qualified as a parade and received a police escort. The governor's campaign staff, which seems to be increasingly prone to publicity stunts, took a gamble and had the candidate enter the hall in a unique way. The other five candidates entered upon being introduced on the floor of the hall, walking through a path toward the stage while waving to the crowd. Dean, when introduced, appeared on the second floor balcony waving jubilantly from the crowd.
Each candidate received 10 minutes to speak. Dean delivered a shortened version of his standard stump speech, which usually ends with one or two refrains of "You have the power!" On this occasion, however, Dean dove into his close with no fewer than half a dozen, "You have the power" chants.
The best present Dean may have received for his 55th birthday Monday was a week leading up to the occasion that went mostly his way. The Confederate flag issue, despite the smattering of Confederate flags popping up in the audiences at Dean rallies, has subsided for now. Union endorsements provided a huge boost to the campaign. And his staffer Jake Edwards, according to a campaign spokesperson, is doing just fine.
Coming soon though, look for pressure to mount on Dean to agree to stay within the $45 million proposed spending limit during the primary season until a clear nominee has emerged. Kerry has said he would. Dean insists he and his staff have not yet addressed the issue, that they are $15 million in fund-raising away from having that conversation. He did indicate, however, that he'd like to see the candidates compete on a level playing field, by which he meant, "having everybody having more or less the same amount of money."
It remains to be seen if the candidate made a mistake with that remark by saying what he thought.
By Eric Salzman