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THOMAS OLIPHANT

A speed bump for Dean in capture of Saddam

WASHINGTON

FOR THOSE ostrich Democrats, who claim that what happened over the weekend was more tactical military success than potentially transforming event, imagine this scenario: It's Dec. 5, and Al Gore has just finished telling former Vermont governor Howard Dean of his decision to endorse him.

They discuss timing. Dean, noting that there is a major candidates' debate in New Hampshire just around the corner, tells Gore that in order not to appear heavy-handed, he should delay a formal announcement for 10 days or so.

Gore agrees, noting that he could use the time to privately unruffle the feathers of his many friends in the Democratic Party, and most especially his former running mate, Joe Lieberman, so his move is more of an attempt to foster unity. They worry about leaks but agree that magnanimity beats potential divisiveness.

They agree to make joint appearances on Dec. 15.

Does anybody think that on the day after Saddam Hussein's capture, Al Gore would have endorsed Dean by citing as one of his two main reasons (the other being his uplifting grass-roots campaign) the fact that Dean was right in opposing a war to topple the Iraqi dictator?

Does anybody think that Gore would then use the occasion to put an exclamation point after that argument by pointedly saying that the other major candidates had been wrong to support the congressional authorization President Bush sought in advance of the invasion?

Not much is certain in politics, but there is no doubt that John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, and Joe Lieberman would have gladly paid for the cost of an endorsement show like that, if only it had been staged this week.

Conventional wisdom, with a strong nudge from the Dean campaign, is that Saddam's capture may remind us all of the potential liability in Dean's views on Iraq but that this reminder probably comes too late to affect the race he is beginning to dominate. Furthermore, whatever weakness may lurk, it is cushioned for the primary season by the fact that Dean has already broadened his message beyond the war to encompass all the themes that make hard-core Democrats furious about Bush.

Call it anger management.

This point of view is wrong substantively and at least misleading politically.

On the substance of the issue, it is Joe Lieberman who poses the issue most directly. All Lieberman is trying to understand is how the good doctor would deal with the fact that if the country had followed his advice last winter Saddam would still have been in one of his palaces last Saturday, not in that spider hole near Tikrit.

I preferred Dean's more indecisive period just after Baghdad fell last April, when he confessed ambiguity when asked if the United States was better off with Saddam toppled from power. His more recent discovery of the view that it really is a good thing he's gone is more troubling because it raises the obvious question of how you can claim credit for having been against something whose main result you consider good.

More recently, he has been joined in his ambivalence by Wesley Clark, whose belated campaign kickoff was marred by a similar inability to say clearly whether he supported or opposed the war. Clark has since decided that he was against it.

For months Dean has been able to dodge the issue because of the violent postinvasion mess in Iraq for which the Bush administration was so irresponsibly unprepared. Saddam's capture revives it. Clark at least was forthright over the weekend in saying that the remarkable turn of events did not change his views that the invasion had warped our priorities in the broader struggle against terrorism.

The issue shouldn't be dodged. Among the judgments Democrats should be making next month is whether the reconstruction of Iraq should be entrusted to someone who opposed the war last winter or to someone more inclined to see it through to a lasting conclusion because he supported the confrontation with Saddam in the first place.

This is where politics comes in. The conventional wisdom -- that Dean is too well organized and too well funded to lose -- neglects one fact. The Dean coalition is vulnerable to the large chunk of less partisan voters (around one-fourth in Iowa and New Hampshire and considerably more elsewhere) who have yet to make up their minds about the race.

Most of these people are like the broader center in US politics -- reluctantly in favor of bringing matters to a head in Iraq but displeased at the administration hype about unconventional weapons and even more displeased by the postwar situation.

What make every other candidate a long shot is the fact that this bloc may not coalesce behind a single candidate. If it should, all bets are off.

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

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