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Dean supporters reject comparison to '72 McGovern

FRANKLIN -- Fran and John Peters had never knocked on doors or canvassed voters for anybody before. They had always voted, read the newspapers, had opinions. But they had never gotten involved.

Not until the United States launched a war they thought unjust, and they got angry. Not until a Democrat came along who roundly criticized the Republican president's conduct of that war. That candidate, a long shot from a small state, was not the party's first pick. But a new kind of grass-roots movement was coalescing around him, and soon he seemed unstoppable.

The year was 1972, not 2003. The war was in Vietnam, not Iraq. The candidate in question was George McGovern, not Howard Dean.

Now, 30 years after the Peterses volunteered for McGovern, their son Chris, 36, is working for his first presidential campaign, as an organizer for Dean in Chicago. Chris Peters is angry about the war in Iraq, livid at President Bush, and idealistic about what Dean can do to change things. And he is part of a new kind of grass-roots movement, tethered as much to anger over Iraq as to the candidate, the man leading the nine-member Democratic field in most opinion polls.

But the Peterses are wary of suggestions that anything more direct than their own bloodline connects the two presidential hopefuls. They concede there are striking similarities between the two campaigns. But they, like other Dean supporters, are troubled by comparisons between the two men, because of what McGovern has come to symbolize in American politics. Cast as a lefty peacenik, McGovern was trounced in every state but one by incumbent Richard Nixon in 1972.

"And so McGovern has just become a word that you use, for someone who is a loser," said Fran Peters, 65. "Someone who loses everything except crazy Massachusetts."

In the decades since his defeat, and especially recently, McGovern's fate has been used by party centrists as a cautionary tale, proof that straying too far to the left is general election suicide. This year, leaders of the Democratic Leadership Council compared Dean to McGovern in arguing why he should not be the party's nominee in 2004. Republicans have drawn the parallel with some glee.

McGovern, who allows "there is quite a similarity" between his campaign and Dean's, laments the way the comparison is being used.

"I think it's a revival of some of the charges leveled against me 30 years ago," said the former senator from South Dakota, who won a large, hard-fought primary. "I think candidates ought to lay out their own programs rather than concentrating so much of their time on attacks against somebody else's proposals. They should rally behind whoever wins the nomination. I wish that had happened in '72."

McGovern, now 81, places himself, and Dean, "right in the mainstream of the Democratic Party" on all issues besides the wars each have opposed. That opposition "departed a little from what some people regard as mainstream . . . but conservatives used to be more cautious about committing America's Army abroad than they are today."

Dean spokesman Jay Carson sees mostly differences between Dean and McGovern.

"George McGovern is a good man, but this is a very different time, a different campaign, and governor Dean is a very different candidate," said Carson. "Despite all of the attempts of the press and his opponents to pigeonhole him and paint him as someone or something else, Howard Dean is always going to be Howard Dean."

For Gary Hart, the former Colorado senator who was McGovern's campaign manager in 1972, the pairing mischaracterizes both men.

"It's a kind of political journalism shorthand to say that Dean is the George McGovern of this year," said Hart, who has run twice for the Democratic nomination and has endorsed Dean rival John F. Kerry. "It paints a portrait of McGovern which is not true. He was a regular Democrat who got elected twice from a conservative Midwestern state, and you can't do that if you're a far lefty. On social issues, Dean has been all over the lot. You can put three or four of his positions together and paint him as a liberal, but that doesn't make him a liberal."

Those who support Dean, and even some who dislike him, say the comparison does not hold, because the times, and the men, are so different. Iraq is no Vietnam. And the pugilistic Dean is no McGovern, who was loath to match the hardball tactics that were Nixon's specialty.

And yet, for all of those differences, the campaigns for McGovern and Dean have strikingly similar characters.

Using the Internet, Dean's operation has transformed the way campaigns are run, its plethora of weblogs connecting supporters across the country, raising millions of dollars in small contributions, decentralizing his organization, and creating small armies ready for action on short notice.

A call to arms in Burlington, Vt., will yield handwritten letters to Iowa caucus voters from Dean supporters in Chicago. An article about Dean in a newspaper on the East Coast will prompt scores of critical e-mails from clear across the country.

Chris Peters's job is to host "Meetups" for Dean, once a month, at a Chicago brew pub. The gatherings draw 60 or 80 people, and are often like working bees. A recent one produced scores of handwritten letters praising Dean to Iowa caucus voters. The technology has created communities united not just by the candidate, but by issues and friendship.

"It's definitely a community," he said. "I am 100 percent behind Dean as a candidate, and I'm working for him when I've never worked for anyone before. It's something for me that goes beyond a political campaign. Getting together with a group of people once a month to actually do something about politics is a very empowering feeling. It's not so much work as it is a relief to take some action."

Where the Dean campaign uses the Internet, the McGovern campaign used direct mail, with spectacular results, collecting millions of dollars in contributions which, even by the end of the general election, averaged $19, McGovern said. Just as Dean is only one of the reasons his supporters gather, McGovern's base consisted of groups already galvanized by battles over Vietnam and civil rights.

"Here, the country was frustrated and angry with Richard Nixon, and [thought] that their nation was disserved, and we tapped into that," said Morris Dees, who was the chief fund-raiser for McGovern and founded the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The direct mail, like Dean's Internet operation, provided a framework that was more than financial: It created a grass-roots campaign operation.

"I think it was the best army of volunteers ever assembled," McGovern said. "At least until that time, nobody else had ever built such a network of grass-roots supporters. It was so rooted in individuals, ordinary people in their communities and neighborhoods. Politics until that time had been more dominated by the political strongmen."

Being a McGovern supporter in those days marked one as "incredibly left wing," Fran Peters said. But she was devoted to him because "he wasn't running to rule the world. He saw a wrong that he wanted to right."

Hart said McGovern volunteers were marked not just by "a devotion to candidate, but also devotion to each other. It was not a hierarchy. It was very much an army of equals."

But for all of that, McGovern lost 49 states in November 1972. Some key Democrats withheld their support. Troubles with his vice presidential picks made him seem inept. And Nixon, McGovern said, "pounded me night and day, as weak on defense, weak on crime, weak on not standing up to abuses in the welfare system."

His candidacy was "too much based on Vietnam," Hart said. "He let himself be narrowed."

While his critics say Dean, too, would be narrowed, and that the Bush campaign will frame the 2004 contest solely in terms of national security, others say McGovern's fate is unlikely to befall Dean because his personality is so different.

"McGovern tended to be more passive, a more trusting candidate who somehow couldn't defend himself," Dees said. "He chose not to dignify the attacks upon him. Dean is a fairly scrappy candidate, sometimes too scrappy. He doesn't suffer fools easily, and he is quick to set the record straight."

"I think Dean is much savvier," Fran Peters said. "I can't see him letting himself be savaged. He responds."

She hasn't the same devotion to Dean as she had to McGovern, however. She is not sure the former Vermont governor is liberal enough on social issues. And the last three decades have taught her every candidate has limitations. It's a lesson her son Chris has yet to learn, she said.

"I think maybe he could be disappointed by Dean," she said. "I see more obstacles, and Chris sees more possibilities, which I guess is the difference in 30 more years of experience."

Yvonne Abraham can be reached at

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