Democrats Entangle DeLay in Verbal War

Posted September 3, 2003 at 6:59pm

After former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) said over the Labor Day weekend that Attorney General John Ashcroft was “not a patriot,” political reporters scanning their e-mail Tuesday morning were treated to a blaring headline: “DeLay: Dean’s Ashcroft Slander an Embarrassment.”

In short order came the Dean campaign’s response, which decried the “DeLay-Ashcroft wing” of the GOP.

The exchange has become a familiar one during the Democratic presidential primary season. In addition to Dean, DeLay has also picked fights with just about every declared Democratic contender and one as of yet undeclared candidate, retired Gen. Wesley Clark.

According to both sides, the wars of words are mutually beneficial — DeLay gets to take an early swipe at Democratic challengers while Democrats get to publicly squabble with one of the party faithful’s least favorite Republicans.

“We feel an obligation to set the record straight when desperate Democrats get out of line and try to discredit this president in an effort to score political points,” said DeLay spokesman Jonathan Grella.

Other than the Republican National Committee, DeLay’s office is often the only GOP operation that consistently bludgeons Democratic White House hopefuls, playing a role that the Bush administration can’t for fear of being accused of playing politics.

Grella also argued that every minute a Democratic campaign spends responding to DeLay’s charges is a minute it isn’t spending on its own message.

But for Dean, standing up to GOP attacks is the heart of the message.

“Every time Tom DeLay or John Ashcroft attacks us, our supporters rally behind us,” said a Dean campaign aide. “Among Democrats these men are despised. These attacks are going to crystallize that we are prominent in this race, and we welcome them.”

Sen. John Kerry’s campaign had a similar spat with DeLay in April after the Massachusetts Democrat called for “regime change” in Washington. DeLay called Kerry’s comments “desperate,” and Kerry’s campaign pointed out that the Texan had never served in the military.

“Only once in a blue moon does anybody ever call us about something that Tom DeLay says about John Kerry,” said Kerry campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs. “When it does happen, it’s always a good day for us. When Democrats see John Kerry fighting Tom DeLay, that’s an excellent day for John Kerry.”

An added benefit from the spat with DeLay, according to Gibbs, was that it further emphasized Kerry’s military service record — something his campaign never misses an opportunity to do.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) got into a scrape with DeLay over the Texas redistricting controversy. Lieberman pushed for investigations into DeLay’s alleged role in using federal resources to track down the famed missing Lone Star state Senators.

The issue — and the fight with the Majority Leader — allowed Lieberman to play the attack dog role while also emphasizing his position as ranking member of the Governmental Affairs Committee.

“This has less to do with politics and policy for us and more simply to do with the fact that Senator Lieberman is not afraid to take on Republicans, especially when they’re using their office to pursue an ideological agenda at the expense of the public trust,” said Lieberman campaign spokesman Jano Cabrera.

But no candidate seems to have capitalized more quickly on a fight with DeLay than Dean, whose campaign is known for its innovative Internet and fundraising strategies.

Since the squabbling started, Dean’s Web site has been busily collecting signatures for its “Stop John Ashcroft” petition. Dean supporters are also encouraged to donate to his campaign every time a Republican attacks him.

A DeLay aide said that the fights were similarly effective at stirring up GOP activists, and he repeated the Republican mantra that the party would be happy to see a Bush vs. Dean race in 2004.

“If in the process we fire up our base and raise the profile of Democrats who have less of a chance of defeating the president, we’re doing our job effectively,” the aide said. “The White House surely appreciates the support.”