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Howard Dean - A Commentary

By Lee Cullum, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – Where talented doctors once grew into fine writers, such as Anton Chekhov or William Carlos Williams, today they become successful politicians. No sooner had Tennessee Republican Bill Frist, a surgeon, taken over as majority leader of the Senate than Governor Howard Dean of Vermont, also a physician, stepped up his campaign for the White House. Currently at 3% in the polls, he's far from the front-runner. But as the only governor in the race thus far and the only candidate, besides New York's Al Sharpton, not in the House or Senate, he bears watching. Those who ignored Jimmy Carter in 1975 or Bill Clinton in 1991 don't want to make the same mistake this year.

Howard Dean may be a doctor, but politics clearly is his calling. Indeed, when he first ran for the legislature, he had only been practicing medicine a year, with his wife, who's still a working physician. Before long he was lieutenant governor, and then moved to the top job in 1991, where he has been reelected to six additional two-year terms. The question is: Can the governor of the second smallest state in the union with a population of just over 600,000 people who are 97% white preside over a huge, highly varied nation?

The answer is: Maybe. Howard Dean is an attractive, likeable candidate in a field remarkably crowded with News Englanders, including Mr. Sharpton. Howard Dean is as personable as Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and better with people than the remote John Kerry of Massachusetts. He could surprise them both in New Hampshire.

Health insurance will be the big issue for Howard Dean, and on this he's well prepared to speak. In Vermont he used Medicaid with matching federal funds to cover all children under 18 whose family incomes are at 300% of the poverty level. This he wants to do nationally as well. In addition, he proposes bringing under Medicaid all adults from 18 to 23 in similar financial circumstances. For people over 65 he would try to enact a modest prescription drug benefit. As for the ones in between, he would leave the current system in tact but subsidize insurance for those who do not have it with a "big deductible, maybe $2,000." Howard Dean's approach to the health-care system is to "get everybody in first, then fix it."

Of course, in a startling number of elections over the past 25 years, New England candidates have lost to those from the South. So John Edwards of North Carolina must be taken seriously. His experience is slight - one term in the Senate - and his grasp of foreign policy is no better than Howard Dean's. But geography makes him a contender. Geography also would favor Bob Graham of Florida if he decided to run. The ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, he has the heft to make an important race. And he hardly could have a more advantageous base, better, perhaps, than Dick Gephardt's trade-union platform

What Governor Dean must do to be competitive is gain a lot of seasoning, quickly. He also must dispel the impression among some that he's too far to the left. Will it be enough? Can any of them defeat George W. Bush? I doubt it, unless war or economics turn badly against him. The Democrat who could make the most exciting race is Hillary Clinton. Though wildly controversial, she could arouse nostalgia for the bubble that used to be.

Lee Cullum is a contributor to the Dallas Morning News and to KERA.