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December 29th, 2003 - 12:51 am

What to make of this?

Complaining about the torrent of attacks raining down on him from his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, Howard Dean on Sunday criticized his party’s national chairman, Terry McAuliffe, for not intervening to tone down the debate.

“If we had strong leadership in the Democratic Party, they would be calling those other candidates and saying, `Hey look, somebody’s going to have to win here,’ ” Dr. Dean, the former governor of Vermont, told reporters trailing him as he campaigned through central Iowa. Referring to one of Mr. McAuliffe’s predecessors, he added, “If Ron Brown were the chairman, this wouldn’t be happening.”

Dr. Dean also implied that many of his supporters, particularly young people, might stay home in November if another Democrat’s name ends up on the ballot.

President Reagan made famous his 11th Commandment: “One shall not speak ill towards a fellow Republican.” If it was ever followed, the 11th was no longer even observed even in the breach by the time of the 1988 Republican primary contest. That’s just the way primary races are run.

Naturally then, the guy at the front of the pack is going to find a lot of buckshot in his ass. That, too, is the nature of politics. It’s also completely natural for the frontrunner to want complain a bit about being everyone’s favorite target. But I can’t think of an instance where a primary leader publically complained to (and about!) the party leadership.

(Aside: If Dean were to win next November, would he be addressed as Dr. President?)

Part of Dean’s complaint, I’d guess, is yet more public infighting between the Clinton/McAuliffe and Gore/Dean wings of the Democratic Party. There’s a real fight going on for the soul of the party — or rather, for that nasty dark thing political parties have in place of souls — and Dean may think it will serve him to take McAullife down a notch.

But it sure as hell looks bad to the public. Especially that last line I quoted, where Dean practically threatens to take his bat and ball home if he doesn’t get his way.

The good news for Dean is, the general public isn’t yet paying attention. But the chattering class certainly is — and today’s story is one more example of the anti-Dean backlash we’ve seen in the media since shortly after the Gore endorsement.

More to follow.

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