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Primary Importance

Forget Iowa and New Hampshire. Team Dean plans to use New York to stop whoever—Clark? Kerry? Edwards?—breaks out in the early primaries.

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In early October, at a time when the Democratic presidential contenders were consumed with preparations for Iowa and New Hampshire, Howard Dean’s senior strategists quietly began channeling large amounts of cash and resources into the Dean campaign in New York.

Dean’s New York State campaign director, Ethan Geto, moved the operation from its previously humble digs into a sprawling new office on Lexington Avenue. He hired a staff of twelve. His team amassed a database that, according to Geto, contains more than 60,000 active volunteers in New York—an astonishing number by any measure.

No one was paying serious attention to New York yet; the March 2 primary here, along with the nine other Super Tuesday races, comes relatively late in the game—after Iowa and New Hampshire in January, and after seven other contests on February 3. So Dean’s New York effort, which dwarfed that of his rivals, passed largely unnoticed.

The reason for the early rapid buildup was simple: Dean advisers believe the primary here could carry unique strategic importance. It’s the contest in which Team Dean is hoping to deal a fatal blow to whoever emerges as the No. 2 threat to the former Vermont governor after the January and February contests—provided, of course, such a challenger emerges.

Although Dean could easily have the race sewn up before New Yorkers hit the polls, many Democrats are pushing an alternative scenario: The seven races on February 3 will weed out much of the pack, leaving behind a clean, two-person showdown. The No. 2 contender could then rally southern Democratic voters and members of the party Establishment who remain suspicious of his Web-driven, antiwar candidacy. If that happens, Dean strategists are hoping their New York organization will serve as a final, insurmountable obstacle.

“If someone should emerge as a stop-Dean candidate post–February 3, we view the New York primary as the point at which we’ll finish that person off,” says Geto, a longtime public-relations consultant who joined the Dean campaign in March at the behest of a friend. “The national campaign is investing significant resources here because New York, perhaps more than any other Super Tuesday state, would serve as a firewall against such a candidate.”

So the Dean campaign in New York has been doing what the Dean campaign does everywhere else—out-raising, outspending and out-organizing the competition; exciting armies of volunteers; forging new alliances (and straining old ones). It outdueled rivals, for example, to win the backing of influential New Yorkers like City Council speaker Gifford Miller, Queens Democratic county chairman Tom Manton, and Dennis Rivera, president of the health-care-workers union—all of whom command political operations that will be placed at Dean’s disposal come March.

Even some advisers to rival candidates concede they’re being outmaneuvered. “I don’t think that Dean has caught fire in New York the way he has elsewhere, but you can’t help but admire how well oiled a machine he has here,” says Congressman Anthony Weiner of Queens and Brooklyn, a Wesley Clark supporter. “Look, they’ve done a great job. You can write it off as Internet buzz, but being able to get about 10,000 people into Bryant Park, as Dean did, is no small feat.”

If the New York primary does play a pivotal role in the race, it wouldn’t be the first time. Al Gore imploded here in 1988 against Michael Dukakis—leading to Gore’s surrender. Bill Clinton’s win over Jerry Brown in New York helped seal Brown’s fate in 1992.

Of course, it’s perfectly possible that next year’s New York primary will prove irrelevant. Dean is widening his lead in various polls in early-primary states. Gore’s surprise endorsement stamped Dean with a seal of Establishment credibility at a time when rivals are desperate to turn party leaders against him. If Dean wins big in Iowa and New Hampshire and no one emerges as the clear No. 2 competitor in February, the race will be over shortly after Groundhog Day.

But the Dean campaign is loath to leave anything to chance. Voters (remember them?), not pundits, choose the nominee, and although it’s starting to seem far-fetched, various scenarios could still produce a two-man race between Dean and either Wesley Clark, John Kerry, or Dick Gephardt (or, less likely, Joe Lieberman or John Edwards). A challenger might gain traction by arguing that Dean, a small-state governor with a trip-wire temper, lacks the gravitas and national-security experience to defeat George W. Bush.


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