Misplaced Mudslinging

When I recently asked Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe how he felt about having nine candidates in the presidential race -- this was before Wesley Clark's announcement last Wednesday brought the field to 10 -- he replied, "Love it. The more, the merrier."

McAuliffe added, "For me to have nine candidates traveling around the country right now as ambassadors for the party -- drawing the distinctions, talking about the failures of the Bush administration -- is spectacular. The goal is to make sure we're unified next spring."

There's little doubt that the nine candidates who lose the primary contest will rally around the winner -- especially if they want a shot at the vice-presidential slot. But they probably won't do so happily, especially if current front-runner Howard Dean manages to hold on and win the nomination. Right now at least three candidates are already taking the gloves off against Dean.

The three candidates in question -- Dick Gephardt, John Kerry and Joe Lieberman -- are, not surprisingly, the three who have the most to lose from Dean's success. A few months ago, conventional wisdom held that all three would compete for the nomination. Now, Gephardt and Lieberman's campaigns are struggling to stay afloat, and Kerry's efforts to inject momentum into his presidential bid have produced only modest returns.

Gephardt's folks are behind a Web site called DeanFacts.com, which includes unflattering quotes from Dean and articles about his positions on Medicare and Social Security. For instance, Dean told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1993 that Medicare is "one of the worst federal programs ever."

One obvious problem with the Web site is that it's unfair; we don't know anything about the context in which Dean made these comments. But the bigger issue is the way in which Gephardt is going after Dean. It would come as little surprise if the Bush campaign or a GOP operative started leaking or posting damaging information about Dean. But Gephardt is doing it in the apparent belief that what hurts Dean helps him -- without doing harm to the Democratic Party as a whole.

History shows that Gephardt is wrong. Remember that it was Al Gore, not George Bush Senior, who first attacked Michael Dukakis for Massachusetts' prisoner furlough program in 1988; Bush and Lee Atwater later seized on one particular furlough beneficiary -- Willie Horton -- to deep-six Dukakis during the general election.

Yes, in a primary we need candidates to spell out their differences. We need to know what makes them deserve our vote and, in a big, inclusive party like the Democratic one, where they stand on the issues.

But part of the reason the Dean campaign has been so successful is that the former Vermont governor has focused his anger on President Bush rather than explicitly attacking Democratic opponents. By training their fire on Dean, Gephardt, Kerry and Lieberman are only garnering the former governor more attention. Remember when Lieberman attacked Dean on the Middle East during the most recent presidential debate, in Baltimore? It may have won Lieberman a mention in the next morning's paper but it hasn't seemed to boost his campaign at all. It simply cemented the image of Dean as the front-runner, which helps Dean and Dean only.

The Dean-Kerry spat has been going on since the South Carolina debate. Last week, Kerry's communications director, Chris Lehane, quit, reportedly because Kerry wasn't aggressive enough in going after Dean. I don't know if Lehane felt he was watching a rerun of the 2000 election recount, when Gore sat quietly by while the Bush crowd slugged its way into the White House. But a general election is the time to sling mud. And the other party's guy is the person to sling it at.

Perhaps the nomination contest is starting to get nasty early because of the compressed primary schedule. Many of the candidates will be out of the race after the March 2 primaries, if not before. So if they're going to take their shots, now is the time. But they should remember that their opposition research is likely to end up as grist for a no doubt grateful Bush re-election team. Lively debate is a good thing. But at this stage of the game, trying to take down another guy with personal attacks isn't.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.