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Warren, Buttigieg fight echoes 2004 campaign, serves as warning for 2020 race

An escalating feud between Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) is highlighting old schisms in the Democratic Party over ideology and political strategy — disputes that highlight just how crucial the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses are to both candidates.

The sight is all too familiar — with a large number of Democrats in Iowa, the fight is reminiscent of the 2004 campaign, when a similar cast of characters held the stage. The feud between the two front-runners cost them both the chance to be the Democratic nominee against President George W. Bush. 

Fifteen years ago, liberals found a rising champion in Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D), the only major contender in the Democratic race who had vocally opposed the war in Iraq. Dean’s populist appeal drew huge crowds at West Coast campaign stops, and his poll numbers in Iowa rose steadily.

Standing in his way was the man Dean had supported for president in 1988, Dick Gephardt, the House Democratic leader. Gephardt, from neighboring Missouri, cultivated a blue collar Midwestern moderation and banked on support from one of the key pillars of the Democratic electorate, organized labor.

Fifteen years later, another Northeastern populist is carving out a liberal niche. Warren does not have the benefit of a single issue on which she can contrast herself with the rest of the field, like Dean and the war in Iraq, but she has used detailed policy proposals to set her campaign apart.

Like in 2004, another Midwestern pragmatist is making a bid for the moderate lane — though a moderate in today’s Democratic Party would look shockingly liberal set against the 2004 field. 

And like back  then, the national front-runner is struggling in Iowa. Public polls showed Sens. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the party’s vice presidential nominee in 2000, and John Kerry (D-Mass.) leading nationally. In Iowa, Lieberman’s standing was so miserable he abandoned the state, and Kerry’s poll numbers sank over the course of a lousy summer.

Today, it is former Vice President Joe Biden who finds himself ahead nationally but behind in Iowa. The most recent survey, conducted in November for the Des Moines Register and CNN by veteran Iowa pollster Ann Selzer, found Biden tied for third with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at 15 percent, just behind Warren and ten points behind a surging Buttigieg.

Less than two months before Iowa Democrats caucus in cafeterias and community centers across the state, and as Warren shows the first signs of engaging Buttigieg in a fight for the nomination, the path the 2004 race followed provides a potential roadmap — and some stark warning signs — for all three contenders.

Gephardt had begun the campaign as the runaway leader in Iowa, a state he had won in his previous presidential campaign in 1988. But Dean chipped away, and by the summer of 2003, Dean and Gephardt were easily outpacing the rest of the field. A July 2003 poll conducted by Iowa polling expert Ann Selzer for the Des Moines Register found Dean and Gephardt leading the field at 23 percent and 21 percent, respectively.

The two men remained cordial on the debate stage and in the occasional green room meeting, even as the race’s fading front-runners, Kerry and Lieberman, tried to arrest Dean’s slide.

“He may criticize me on the issues, but it’ll never get personal,” Dean told his pollster, Paul Maslin.

But Gephardt used his allies in labor to undermine Dean, accusing him of backing NAFTA and alleging he would fail to protect legacy social programs. By November, Selzer’s numbers showed Gephardt had pulled back into the lead with 27 percent, as Dean slumped to 20 percent and Kerry lurked with 15 percent.

Buttigieg has also succeeded in raising policy concerns about Warren, this time over her “Medicare for All” plan. Buttigieg has raised concerns about the program’s costs and questioned why Warren doesn’t trust Americans to make their own choice between private insurance and an expanded Medicare program.

To arrest his slide, Dean began running advertisements showing Gephardt standing next to Bush as the president laid out his case for war in Iraq, which had turned deeply unpopular among the Democratic electorate.

“Our party and our country need new leadership,” the ad intoned. Gephardt’s Iowa spokesman, Bill Burton, claimed it was the first time any Democrat had run a negative advertisement before the caucuses.

Warren’s paid television advertising has only recently begun, and she has spent her money introducing herself to voters rather than engaging with rivals. Instead, she has only begun to focus on Buttigieg this week. She suggested that Buttigieg may have conflicts of interests with past clients he worked for at McKinsey, the consulting firm that has not released details of his employment. And she has been critical of Buttigieg’s relationships with big donors and bundlers. 

“The mayor should be releasing who is on his finance committee, who are the bundlers who are raising big money for him, who he has given titles to and made promises to. And he should open up the doors so that the press can follow the promises that he is making in these big-dollar fundraisers,” Warren said Thursday.

As tensions rise between the Iowa front-runners now, they can learn lessons from the brutal fall of 2003.

As Dean and Gephardt escalated their feud, the ensuing months turned savage, and increasingly personal. Dean took hits from all his leading rivals, but Gephardt’s attacks were the most cutting. Gephardt called Dean a “weather-vane Democrat” who carried “cynical politics of manufactured anger and false conviction.” Both men accused the other of lying, and entrance polls conducted at the caucuses found most Iowans thought both men were running negative campaigns.

At the same time, Kerry and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) started to gain. Kerry invested heavily in Iowa throughout the fall on an ad blitz portraying himself as the candidate best able to beat Bush. Edwards won the Des Moines Register’s coveted endorsement.

By January, days before the caucuses, Selzer showed Kerry leading Edwards 26 percent to 23 percent, Dean taking 20 percent and Gephardt tumbling to 18 percent. When Iowans caucused, Kerry won 38 percent of the vote and Edwards surged to 32 percent. Dean took just 18 percent, while Gephardt collapsed to 11 percent. 

Losing Iowa ended Gephardt’s campaign. Dean struggled on, finishing a disappointing second in New Hampshire, and he finished behind both Kerry and Edwards in all seven states that held primaries and caucuses the following week. 

Joe Trippi, Dean’s campaign manager, accused Gephardt of executing a “murder-suicide” — a label even Gephardt strategists now acknowledge.

Veterans of the 2004 campaign said the early battles between Warren and Buttigieg had not yet risen to the levels of vitriol that flew between Dean and Gephardt. But that feud also started small, and the parallels are mounting: Gephardt raised questions about Dean’s temperament; Buttigieg has been critical of what he calls Warren’s “my way or the highway” approach to policy. Dean responded when Gephardt began to eat into his poll numbers, just as Warren has begun to engage with Buttigieg.

And waiting in the wings is Biden, a national front-runner respected, if not loved, who like Kerry has positioned himself as the candidate best able to take on the incumbent Republican president.

How far the fight goes in the 60 days before the Iowa caucuses could determine whether history repeats itself. That history is a stark warning, some of those who were there 15 years ago said, for any candidate considering a sharp turn into negative territory.

“The Dean-Gephardt murder suicide was devastating for both of them,” said John Lapp, who managed Gephardt’s Iowa campaign. “In the even more crowded field of 2020, those thinking of picking an ugly, public Democratic primary fight should be careful.”

 

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