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THOMAS OLIPHANT

Dean mired in explaining goofs

BALTIMORE

EVERY SERIOUS presidential candidate needs to live in fear of three simple words: "Smith later explained." They are now part of Howard Dean's life, and they have achieved some traction in the political world, even as his campaign continues to rake in dollars, grass roots workers, and Iowa and New Hampshire polling points.

Dean later explained his position on Israel.

Dean later explained his position on Social Security.

Dean later explained his position on the Cuban embargo and the tax cuts for moderate-income Americans he wants to junk. And in a head-scratching combination of inaccuracy and egomania, Dean later explained his weird assertion that he was the only white candidate willing to talk about race before white audiences.

When those words or their synonyms pop up in the press, the candidate is not only screwing up, he has been busted. He is explaining because he is having to wiggle out of a fix he put himself in.

Watching them do it is one of the joys of politics, and watching Dean do it is instructive as well because the difficulty this mass-marketed straight talker has sometimes in actually talking straight is considerable. Of late, he has managed to mix inadequate explanations with a revealing annoyance that he is being subjected to slings and arrows that go with the territory for everybody else.

Dean's latest later explanations concern Israel and race.

Regarding the latter, he confidently declared during last week's Congressional Black Caucus-sponsored debate: "I'm the only white politician who ever talks about race in front of white audiences."

It was an astonishing boast first of all because of its flagrant inaccuracy. John Edwards talks about race constantly because it is central to part of his basic message that white Southerners carry a special leadership burden in this area. Joe Lieberman always does it because his gutsy volunteer work in the South 40 years ago helped form his character. And Bob Graham does likewise to make the point that he has rich experience in one of the country's most diverse states.

It was also astonishing because of the false implication of superiority in Dean's boast -- and I am not the first to note that there is a veneer of superiority that infects the entire Dean presentation.

Finally, the campaign's response to getting tagged for this was astonishing. It wasn't an "oops" or an "I Misspoke," it was an exasperated noting that Dean had said this before and no one had complained. The implication here is that if you take a swipe at him you're just another hack or pol playing the game, in contrast to his loftier purpose.

That attitude suffused the Dean approach to Israel as well. Here Dean got in trouble for comments in casual conversation with reporters in New Mexico the week before to the effect that the United States needed to be "even-handed" as regards Israel and the Palestinians, that "it's not our place to take sides," and that Israel would have to get out of the West Bank and dismantle nearly all its settlements for there to be lasting peace.

The point is not that Dean would endanger Israel's security, which is absurd. The point is that he made a rookie mistake -- failing to recognize that the foundation of the US role in the Middle East is an unshakable commitment to Israel and that negotiation details are for the parties to resolve with our unceasing help.

In the give and take of politics, it was a goof, and Joe Lieberman was within his rights to call him on it -- in fact, he was right to do so. Rather than take the point before, during, and after the debate, Dean instead called Lieberman a demagogue and his criticisms despicable, desperate, and divisive. Dean's only regret was that he should have used a "different euphemism" instead of the highly charge "even-handed."

Every first-time presidential candidate -- many of whom get elected -- has a stumble or two making the transition from the relative quiet of supporters' living rooms to the brightly lit stage where every word gets examined. One of the legitimate tests of a candidacy, especially one with early promise or success, is how well it handles the inevitable bumps.

Dean is starting to show more hubris than humility in this atmosphere. One or two incidents probably don't matter, but he's flirting with critical mass.

The dangers of "Smith later explained" first became apparent in the media age in the pre-campaign of 1967, when the front-running Republican governor of Michigan (the late George Romney) went to Vietnam at the dawn of the credibility gap and said he'd been brainwashed -- before realizing that presidents shouldn't take office in that condition.

Romney spent weeks trying to say what he really meant, to the point that "Romney later explained" became part of his identity.

Romney was an affable peach of a guy, but his seemingly inevitable nomination prospects sank like a stone.

This is a rough game, but if Dean thinks the last two weeks have been rough he hasn't seen anything yet.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com.

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