How Democrat fund-raiser scored Dean knockout
February 19, 2004
BY LYNN SWEET WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF
There is much to study in the rise and fall of Howard Dean's presidential campaign. A chapter in that story is the attack against the former Vermont governor bankrolled by a small group of anti-Dean Democrats, led by Democratic fund-raiser David Jones.
Anti-Dean television spots by Jones' group ran from Dec. 5 to Dec. 19, a fateful period that could mark the beginning of Dean's downfall. Dean, once the front-runner deemed all but impossible to beat, quit the race on Wednesday having not won a single state.
The 18 individuals, two corporations and six unions Jones persuaded to donate to his Americans for Jobs, Healthcare and Progressive Values fund helped knocked Dean out of contention.
"Clearly did," concurred Dean media adviser Steve McMahon when we talked. He likened Jones' handiwork to "drive-by shootings."
It's the first demonstration of how a political group can attack working under the new McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. Jones collected $663,000 from the 26 donors in the last quarter of 2003 and was able -- with some luck in timing -- to irrevocably wound Dean's $42 million campaign fueled by thousands and thousands of small contributors.
Here is the inside story:
Creation: Jones conceived the anti-Dean operation last year and became the treasurer of what is called a 527 organization, named for the section of the Internal Revenue Code under which these groups operate. According to the rules, 527 groups cannot coordinate with campaigns, and they cannot advocate for a specific candidate. Jones said he did not work with any campaign.
Jones' group would operate in initial anonymity because it did not have to file a report disclosing donors with the IRS until Jan. 31 to reflect money collected in 2003. That would be after the Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina contests. That's a reason most of the stories written about Jones' group -- really a fund since there were only a few people involved, despite the name -- described it as "shadowy" and "secretive."
Tactical goal: The point of the operation was to peel off Dean's liberal supporters in the crucial Jan. 19 Iowa caucus, which was a must-win for Dean. The Jones-commissioned survey of 800 likely Iowa caucusgoers by pollster Paul Harstad, taken after Thanksgiving when Dean was riding high, showed that a whopping 77 percent of Dean's backers identified themselves as liberal. Testing several issues, the poll determined that most of his supporters knew Dean for his opposition to the Iraq War, and they were not aware of where he stood on other issues dear to die-hard progressives: that Dean was endorsed eight times by the National Rifle Association; backed NAFTA, and favored cuts in Medicare spending Republicans had proposed in the mid-1990s.
Timing: The first spot, on Dean's NRA endorsements, ran Dec. 5-12 in Iowa. The second ad ran Dec. 12-19 in Iowa and hit Dean on his NRA backing and NAFTA and Medicare stands. By this time, Jones did not have much money left.
Jones could spend only about $15,000 to buy time in New Hampshire and South Carolina for an inflammatory spot that ran Dec. 13 accusing Dean of "having no military or foreign experience" with a shot of Osama bin Laden on the cover of Time magazine. Jones caught a break when U.S. troops captured Saddam Hussein on Dec. 14, starting a week where Dean spiraled downward. Dean said in a Dec. 15 speech that Saddam's capture "has not made America safer" -- a statement seized by Dean's rivals, which gave Jones' ad free airtime on news and talk shows. On Dec. 16, Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi handed Jones more free exposure when he sent a letter to the other Democratic candidates asking them to condemn "this despicable ad." The ad gets even more free airplay when Dean said a few days later that bin Laden deserved a trial.
Why: Dean's campaign accused the Jones fund of being a front for former candidate Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), who at one time was Dean's main Iowa rival, and the current front-runner Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). Jones is most often identified as a former fund-raiser for Gephardt, but he has a string of Democratic clients, including former Vice President Al Gore and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). At least five of the individual donors and all the unions have ties to Gephardt; other donors have connections to Kerry and retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, who dropped out of the race Feb. 11.
Next: Friday is when the next reports come out, and Jones' will show he has replenished his kitty and is sitting on $270,000.
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