OTTUMWA, Iowa -- As a presidential contender, Howard Dean has made a name for himself as a verbal rough-rider -- arguing his case against the war in Iraq and President Bush's tax cuts with the kind of unstinting rhetoric that has won over Democrats eager to see a bruising battle against Bush next fall.
But on the campaign trail, Dean's throw-down-the-gauntlet mantra is woven with another message, one strikingly different in tone, that preaches the virtue of community and the evil of corporate behemoths unconcerned, he says, with the collective good.
"Bigger and bigger corporations might mean more efficiency, but there is something about human beings that corporations can't deal with, and that's our soul, our spirituality, who we are," Dean told a breakfast crowd in Sidney, Iowa. "We need to find a way in this country to understand and to help each other understand that there is a tremendous price to be paid for the supposed efficiency of big corporations. The price is losing the sense of who we are as human beings."
This Dean message, delivered in a lilting cadence different from the partisan fire and brimstone he serves up in television ads and debates, strikes a chord in some quarters.
"I love that talk about community because we are supposed to be a Christian nation, and if we are a Christian nation, I have to be concerned about you, I have to be concerned about him," said Paul McFarland, 62, a retired military man who listened to Dean at an Ottumwa VFW Hall. "That's the way God wanted it, that's what a Christian nation is all about and we have strayed away from that."
Dean's message is tactically sharp, capturing what his campaign believes could be an important factor in the 2004 presidential election: Americans' anxiety about the future -- about jobs and financial security -- born of corporate mistrust and an attendant craving for more control over their lives.
The message dovetails with a larger critique of "special interests" -- a loosely-defined group of rich, powerful, entrenched corporations, institutions, and lobbyists -- that virtually all the Democratic presidential hopefuls have been assailing. In California, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigned against special interests in unseating Gray Davis as governor.
Dean, in particular, has used the anti-special interests idea as a battering ram. At a rally in Houston this month, the former governor of Vermont railed against the bankrupt Enron and called for greater regulation of industry.
But in the quieter settings, Dean often launches into the theme of uncontrolled power to highlight social policy issues. He points out the importance of structuring the sale of Canadian drugs in the United States without enriching middlemen, so that Main Street pharmacies can be saved. He talks of the need to do away with "No Child Left Behind" legislation, to give control back to local school boards.
This softer side to Dean's rhetoric can be jarring for those accustomed to seeing him in attack mode. It comes, after all, from a man seemingly determined to keep his personal biography -- and sentiment -- out of his campaign, and often seems oddly juxtaposed with Dean's militaristic march though his stump speech or his thunderous "You have the power" call-to-arms for disaffected Democrats.
Indeed, some voters, are taken aback by Dean's political alter ego.
"We are at a point where we need harshness," said Mary Neis, 51, a community college secretary in Ottumwa whose military son is stationed in Iraq. "I will admit I was not expecting to see him less harsh in person -- but I guess everyone has other sides to them."
The message's populist appeal, political observers say, could help Dean move beyond core supporters attracted by his anti-Bush, antiwar stance, and reach less partisan voters unsettled by the rocky economy and eager to hear someone talking about the perils of overseas outsourcing of jobs.
"You could imagine Patrick Buchanan railing about multinational corporations as much as a Democrat might," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. "This is Dean's way of trying to reach some constituency that might not be a natural."
Some say there is a risk in too much dilution -- or, to put a finer point on it, in mush. "Who's against community?" said William Howell, a professor of politics at Harvard University. "In the interest of appealing to a broader base, he is potentially undermining the very thing that has served him so well in the form of a very clear message."
To be sure, Dean is not the lone candidate talking about the value of community and the perils of corporate control. Two of his Democratic rivals, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina and Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, cast themselves as defenders of the underdog laborer, Edwards reminding crowds of his upbringing as the son of a millworker and Gephardt noting his Teamster father. Also, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts has stepped up his critique of special interests on the campaign trail.
The message borrows from a number of previous Democratic campaigns, including those of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and evokes the populist strains of Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, and Theodore Roosevelt, who took stands against the dangers of large entities, from banks to monopolistic businesses.
For a man not given to idle chatter, with an extreme aversion to small talk, Dean seems surprisingly comfortable offering up his emotive meditation on the nation's soul, telling one Iowa crowd recently: "We have to talk about real human values. Not the faux phony family values the president talks about, but the real human values about being able to touch each other as human beings. What we need to do is talk to each other neighbor to neighbor."
In some ways, it is a dialectic drawn from Dean's biography, one punctuated by his frequent rejections of the big and hierarchical. The wealthy scion of a long line of Manhattan power brokers, Dean fled a short-lived stint on Wall Street for a career in Vermont as a small-town doctor. He embraced Congregationalism in place of Episcopal tenets with which he was raised. He frequently cites his experience as a college student in the 1960s as a major influence on his thinking, saying it was a time of hope and promised -- if unrealized -- equality.
Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager, insists Dean's call for community is not a message dreamed up by political consultants. "He was talking about how we had lost a sense of community in this country," Trippi recalled of a talk Dean gave in Iowa last spring, one he said propelled him to sign on to the campaign. "How it's not good enough for me to want health care for my kid. We as Americans have a responsibility to fight for every kid in this country to have health insurance."
Dean points to a visit of his own to Iowa as the genesis of the theme, recalling the eureka moment at a recent brunch with reporters, "I couldn't believe that here was this solid group of Iowans and they are not ranting and raving . . . about evil corporations. They were just calmly telling me the underpinnings of their lives were collapsing under them.
"There was a fundamental fear for the future. They felt that American corporations weren't American anymore and the people they work for didn't value them. They could move their jobs anywhere in the world for the bottom line. It was a complete revelation to me."
Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at email@example.com