Primary Importance

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.

According to senior New York Democrats who confer regularly with Dean’s inner circle, the Dean camp believes the most plausible challenger, if there is one, would be Clark (who’s showing signs of life in various polls) or, less probably, Gephardt (he needs a huge win in Iowa).

Clark, they believe, could be particularly competitive in a head-to-head race in New York—a key reason for Dean’s buildup here. New York is home to one of his most outspoken supporters, Harlem congressman Charles Rangel, and two of his least outspoken, Bill and Hillary Clinton.

“Clark has a unique outpost in New York State,” says one influential New York Democrat close to Dean. “This is where Clark has a financial base. It’s where the Clintons’ top operatives are located. It’s the place where a Clark-led stop-Dean movement would most likely make a last stand.”

Not surprisingly, the Clark camp can live with that analysis. “New York will be a two-person race: Clark and Dean,” says Chris Lehane, a senior adviser to Clark. He concedes, however, that the Dean side had a huge head start here.

“They’ve been on the ground a year, and we’ve been on the ground only two months,” Lehane says. “But as many New Yorkers know, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”

Geto, the leading Dean operative here, declined to disclose the New York campaign’s budget, and he said it was too early to predict what sort of TV ad buy the campaign might undertake. But other yardsticks demonstrate Dean’s solidity here. For instance, the Dean campaign claims the support of 30 Democratic county chairmen—nearly half the statewide total of 62.

Then there are Dean’s volunteers. In a measure of just how many he has at his disposal, his New York headquarters sends 200 of them up to New Hampshire every weekend. Although that often entails getting up at 5:30 on Saturday morning to trek up to Manchester, and sleeping on a mat on the floor of the local YMCA, campaign aides insist that thousands of people send e-mails and résumés every month, asking to be chosen.

City Councilman Eric Gioia recently went to a Dean fund-raiser in his Queens district, and was stunned to find that he didn’t know a third of the people there. “Dean’s bringing New Yorkers into the process many of us have never seen before,” Gioia says.

“In terms of organization and momentum in New York, Dean’s kicking everyone’s ass,” adds a New York fund-raiser who supports a rival candidate. “Nobody knows truly where Dean stands on the issues except for the war. That alone is giving him an organizational base that positions him very well in New York.”

The growth of the Dean operation in New York has mirrored Dean’s nationwide success. He began amassing support here with little attention from the New York Democratic Establishment. The city’s donor community, unimpressed with the Democratic field, lacked a favorite. Many top elected officials and labor leaders similarly bided their time.

But, as has happened across the country, Dean’s success with rank-and-file Democrats forced the party hierarchy to take notice. Elected officials quickly recognized that a Dean endorsement might allow them to capture some of the Dean constituency for themselves. For instance, Gifford Miller, 34, is running for mayor next year, and he badly wants to tap into a young generation of professional, computer-bound voters who have hitherto demonstrated little interest in politics.

In the end, however, Dean’s advantage here is all about one thing: cash. With his rivals trailing, and forced to sink most of their resources into early-primary states, Dean has been the only one with enough spare funds to establish a substantial campaign in later states like New York.

“He’s got a huge amount of money,” Congressman Weiner, the Clark supporter, acknowledges. “It’s much easier being everywhere at once when you have a bankroll like his.”

Primary Importance