The Hunt for a Winner

An army of angry Democrats is looking for someone to lead them. "I am personally going to do everything I can to make sure President Bush is not re-elected," Democrat Eugenia Butler told a CNN interviewer in Los Angeles. "I think he's a phenomenally dishonest, dangerous man."

Butler speaks for a lot of Democrats around the country. Of course, Bush started out on the wrong foot with them. They never thought he was fairly elected. And many of them were shocked that he turned out to be far more conservative and partisan than they had expected.

During his first eight months in office, Bush's job-approval rating among Democrats averaged only 30 percent in the Gallup Poll—hardly a honeymoon. Then 9/11 created a huge surge of national unity. Democrats rallied behind Bush. They gave him nearly 80 percent support in the last quarter of 2001.

But that support wore off quickly in 2002, especially after what Democrats saw as Bush's harshly divisive midterm election campaign last fall. So far this year, Bush has averaged less than 40 percent support from Democrats. The latest Gallup figure is 32 percent.

Republicans cultivated an intense dislike for President Clinton. Has Democrats' antipathy toward Bush reached those epochal proportions? Almost. Republicans' approval of Clinton averaged 26 percent over his eight years in office. Democrats are not quite as down on Bush. But they're getting there.

"I believe that he has really done such damage to this country with his preference for business and his lack of compassion," Democrat Marilyn Cohen of Chicago told a CNN interviewer. Democrat Eric Blackwell of Los Angeles said, "He went into Iraq under the pretense of these so-called weapons of mass destruction. We found not a single one. I feel as if I've been betrayed."

Right now, Democrats say by nearly 2-to-1 (62 percent to 32 percent in the Gallup Poll) that they want a candidate who can beat Bush more than they want a candidate they agree with on the issues.

While Democrats are angry at Bush, they are frustrated by their experience with Vice President Gore in 2000. They want a leader who will stand up to Bush—and show toughness and conviction.

The New Hampshire primary is beginning to look like a contest between Sen. John Kerry of neighboring Massachusetts and former Gov. Howard Dean of neighboring Vermont. The latest New Hampshire poll standings show Kerry (26 percent) and Dean (19 percent) at the top of the pack, followed by Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri (each with 12 percent, according to last month's poll of New Hampshire Democratic primary voters by the American Research Group).

But Kerry and Dean have something more going for them than neighborliness. Kerry is the un-Bush. And Dean is the un-Gore.

A Washington Post profile described Kerry as "smart," "nuanced," and "complex" in his thinking. Those are not words often used to describe Bush. For Democrats looking for someone very different from Bush, Kerry's their man.

Dean presents himself as the Democrat who stands up to Bush—unlike Washington Democrats who voted to authorize the war in Iraq, as Kerry did. "As I travel around the country, rank-and-file Democrats are just as mad at the Democratic Party as they are at Republicans, because they don't feel the Democrats in Washington have stood up to the president," Dean said in New Hampshire this month, adding, "I am not that way."

Like many Democrats, Dean criticizes Gore for running away from the Clinton record in 2000. Dean says he won't do that. He's the un-Gore.

Kerry's response? Well, so am I. "The one thing this nation doesn't need is a second Republican Party," Kerry said at a late-May forum in Lake Placid, N.Y. Dean's response: Who's imitating whom? "I appreciate Senator Kerry saying we don't want Bush lite," Dean said. "And we don't. But, Senator Kerry, we don't want Dean lite, either."

Dean criticizes Kerry for trying to have it both ways on Iraq—supporting the Iraq resolution last fall and then criticizing Bush's failed diplomacy. Former Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway calls Kerry's Iraq position "a nuanced stance, but one that your Democratic primary voter understands." There's that word again—"nuanced."

Kerry thinks that his war record will help him stand out as the un-Bush. "My friends, when I was in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1968, I learned what it was to work with an aircraft carrier for real," Kerry said at Lake Placid.

Who are the Democrats modeling themselves after? Sen. John McCain. Dean wants the Arizona Republican's reputation for straight talk. "I am not a conventional politician," Dean said. "I don't poll and then take positions." Kerry wants McCain's credibility on national security. John Marttila, a Democratic communications consultant from Boston who has worked for Kerry, says, "Americans would trust McCain on national security issues by virtue of what they believe to be his personal strength and personal experience. Similarly, people will come to trust John Kerry."

One candidate who's not like Gore. Another candidate who's not like Bush. And both claim to be like McCain. Tough choice for Democrats.