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by Joe Shea
American Reporter
December 7, 2003

ORLANDO, Dec. 7, 2003 -- Five minutes into a tough-talking stem-winder that had Florida's Democrats at their state convention here wildly cheering and waving their signs, U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry was suddenly recapturing the coveted mantle of leadership from hard-charging former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

For the moment - and it was a long one - the Dean challenge that has at least temporarily eroded his standings in New Hampshire was on the back burner, and the John Kerry that supporters had been hoping for was a living, leading fire-breathing dynamo on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.

What may have been one of the most memorable speeches of his long career in public life -and coincidentally one that may have legitimized the use of the word "ass" in public discourse - was just a 40-minute crescendo in a long concert of political music that has yet to end.

Followed by Wesley Clark, the retired General whose political allegiances are under scrutiny, and then by a barn-burning blast at the President from Howard Dean, and then by a passionate and radical Rep. Dennis Kucinich, the Democratic presidential primary season had descended on Florida, the hurt and longing state where everything went wrong the last time around.

Held at the Walt Disney World Animal Kingdom resort called Coronado Springs, it was a convention of 5,000 political animals determined to undo the perceived errors of the Bush administration - one hand-drawn sign in a corridor of the Disney resort dubbed its leader "Bush: The Lyin' King" - and they demonstrated enough enthusiasm to do it.

The resort's cavernous Coronado ballroom (seating 4,000 people) overflowed into a companion hall with another 1,300, both of them so packed so virtually every available space on both floors and the corridors outside were jammed with people. Many of them seemed unusually keen to answer, as John Kerry noted, President George W. Bush's challenge to "bring it on."

Ironically, one person in the audience, a professor of history and the future in Coral Gables, was named G.W. Bush. He told The American Reporter that he thought a handwritten question he submitted for an evening Q&A session featuring Kucinich and Dean got tossed in the trash.

With the nation's top political writers looking on, a lot of press releases probably got the same treatment. Like fodder for compare-and-contrast essays in a high school English class, the candidates got up and gave their stump speeches, got up and gave their polished answers, got up and mingled with supporters - and repeated themselves dozens of times.

Dean reminded everyone that several of his opponents had voted for the U.S.-Iraq war resolution. Kucinich again told the story of visiting bereaved families of dead Vietnam soldiers as a young newspaper courier in Ohio; Clark again reminded everyone that he had the military experience to lead a nation at war.

But it was Kerry who offered the big surprise with a speech that opened big and kept on climbing. He had been lackluster or just not challenged at an earlier Q&A, but after wolfing down some lunch in a campaign salon and making a mad dash to the restroom trailed by an entourage a dozen strong, he seemed renewed. The effect was palpable in the audience, and lingered late into the night as buzz at the resort's busy bars and restaurants.

Dean also had an announcement, though. With not as much drama as Eisenhower offered when he declared in 1951 that "I will go to Korea," and considerably less than Anwar Sadat demonstrated when he announced in 1977 that he would visit Israel to seek peace with Menachem Begin, Dean declared that he would send former President Bill Clinton to the Middle East to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Clinton, you may remember, lost the momentum for peace at the Wye River Conference on the Middle East in 1998 after he kept Palestinian Prime Minister Yasser Arafat waiting while he dallied with Monica Lewinsky. Dean also said - twice - that he thought the key to peace in the region was to cut off money going to the Middle East for oil, apparently on the presumption that the United States could do without gas.

No idea is fully tested at this stage and many that the delegates heard were unfinished concepts. Dennis Kucinich went so far as to say he wanted "to create a new nation." But what would he call it?

As they study their choices, Florida Democrats may be thinking that so far, the campaign has come down to a choice Kerry and Dean, and it was dramatically clear at the demonstration that accompanied Dean's entrance into the evening session that the "mo" was with him.

But will Dean fade, as Sen. John McCain did, after a rousing victory in New Hampshire? Or will a stronger organization than McCain had bolster Dean all through the primary season, or at least through the March 9, 2004, Florida primary? Will farmers who back Dean in Iowa prove influential enough carry liberal Southern California?

With the reduced impact of the early primaries in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina, it's not clear that a candidate will be in place before the convention; it's hard to imagine Californians wanting the same man they want in Charleston and Waterloo. In fact, Dean told The American Reporter in a brief interview that, as AR Correspondent Randolph Holhut wrote recently, he is much more conservative than people think.

"I am - that's true," he said. "Most people think I'm a raving liberal. I balance budgets. That's something this President hasn't done."

And Floridians have to ask themselves a little deeper question. Will their admiration for the Dean organization - whose political theorists use words like "a counter-factual" to describe their ideas - give way to a deeper affinity for the long strides John Kerry has taken in Senate battles over war and peace, labor and health, civil rights and education, core Democratic values he has championed there and in the memory of so many who heard a young "Winter soldier" fight the Vietnam War to a close, here, on American soil?

Sen. Joe Lieberman will come to Walt Disney World on this Sunday morning, bringing yet another choice. Sen. John Edwards had little impact yesterday but may capture South Carolina. Ambassador Carol Mosely Braun - an insider's choice for Vice President - didn't come and seems out of the race, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, whose campaign is a bad joke, was in front of the appropriate audience on Saturday Night Live.

But Floridians do have one other thing on their minds. That's the future of their beloved U.S. Sen. Bob Graham. Thousands of them wore "Thanks Bob!" pins all day to support the first presidential dropout, but he is very much a presence - a warm, honest, caring man who was almost too good for the primaries.

Again and again on Saturday, Democrats asked if his name appears on their short list of possible running mates. He does, said Dean. He does, says Kerry, trying not to pander to the crowd but clear that Graham - now retiring from the Senate and a former governor of Florida - meets the first test: he's qualified to replace a president.

In a brief chat with The American Reporter, Sen. Graham was invited to spend a day working on this publication. He admitted that it was one of the few jobs he's never tried - he's done dozens of such stints all over the state for years, and became a fierce advocate for Florida workers in the process.

As he might observe, the long primary season may not end in Florida or anywhere else but on the national convention floor. And there those who count numbers will meet those who count hearts, and America will start to make its choice.

Copyright 2003 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

Posted: December 8, 2003


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