In recent days the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire have heard a provocative message: Don't trust Howard Dean with your life.
The TV ad, aired repeatedly in those crucial primary states, was hardly subtle. With Osama bin Laden's face filling the screen, a narrator intoned that Americans "want a president who can face the dangers ahead... . But Howard Dean has no military or foreign policy experience. And Howard Dean just cannot compete with George Bush on foreign policy."
But you'd be wrong to assume that this message emanated from the Bush campaign team. In truth, it was scripted and financed by Democrats.
And that fact alone demonstrates how profoundly the party is divided against itself. Right now, there is growing concern - stoked further by the capture of Saddam Hussein - that front-runner Dean's antiwar stance and anti-Bush bellicosity could spell disaster in November. Dean's critics fear he would feed the long-standing perception among independent swing voters that the Democrats can't be trusted with national security.
This struggle has historical dimensions. Political commentator Jules Witcover, who has written a new history of the Democratic Party, likens the current rift to the tensions that festered from 1967 to 1972, when liberals and moderates warred among themselves over whether a dovish stance on Vietnam, or Cold War hawkishness, would best serve the party's image.
On Thursday, Dean dismissed Democratic critics as the "Washington politics-as-usual club." His supporters say that his unapologetic antiwar rhetoric signifies his overall determination to stand up to President Bush; they say he's the sole candidate who can energize grassroots Democrats and lure new voters into the fold.
But Will Marshall, a prominent Washington Democrat who, until recently, had informally advised presidential candidate John Kerry, said the other day: "It's not encouraging for us that we're so deeply divided on national security issues, because national security will be front and center in the next election - for the first time since the end of the Cold War.
"And Mr. Dean isn't well-positioned for that, because, within the party, he has made himself the tribune of vengeful liberal fundamentalism."
Dean's critics now acknowledge that he's the clear favorite for the nomination; he has captured the liberal activists who vote heavily in the early primaries, and the primary calendar is so compressed that the stop-Dean forces may not have time to slow his momentum, or even figure out which of his rivals would be the best alternative.
Besides, nonpartisan analyst Stuart Rothenberg said, "the idea that the Democrats will nominate anyone who supported Bush's war is sheer lunacy."
But, Dean's critics ask, will the general public elect someone with no foreign policy experience who opposed that war - especially if Hussein's capture spurs further improvements on the ground?
For Dean, the potential problem is that the mood among Democratic diehards - on Iraq and national security - is markedly more liberal than the general mood.
By a 2-1 margin, likely Iowa Democratic voters believed earlier this month that going to war in Iraq was the wrong decision; by contrast, a new, post-capture survey reports that, by a 2-1 margin, Americans in general believe that going to war was the right decision.
The disconnect runs deeper. Dean has attacked Bush's new preemption doctrine, which decrees that the United States reserves the right to attack nations that it deems to be a future threat; on Monday, Dean said he only would have supported U.S. assault on Hussein "had the United Nations given us permission."
But, as a national poll reported just prior to Hussein's capture, 63 percent of Americans say they support Bush's preemption doctrine.
Also, said Marshall, "Dean dug in his heels last Monday, saying that Hussein's capture doesn't make Americans safer. But most Americans disagree with that."
A new, post-capture poll reports that 62 percent of Americans feel the war has made the United States more secure. Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi said on MSNBC the other day: "It doesn't matter what the polls say. We're going to stand for what we believe in."
Dean's rise among Democratic activists has also been fueled by his charge that Bush provoked war by exaggerating or fabricating evidence about Hussein's alleged weapons stockpile. But analysts now believe that most Americans don't care about that anymore, that they will be focused instead on the human rights abuses that will surface at Hussein's trial - and that those abuses will give Bush a retroactive case for war.
Robert Kaufman, a political biographer who specializes in national security issues, said: "When the dialogue shifts to how horrible the Saddam regime really was, Bush wins. A public trial will be a powerful political argument [for the war] that, fairly or not, will sweep away all the legitimate debates about preemptive war and weapons of mass destruction."
Actually, it's already happening. On ABC the other night, Bush was grilled by Diane Sawyer about his prewar claims that Hussein actively possessed lethal weapons. When Sawyer tried to point out the best evidence suggested only that Hussein might try to acquire such weapons, Bush cut her off and said, "So what's the difference?" But Bush's appearance was not a ratings winner, and he soared in the polls anyway.
These events have fueled worries about Dean, but the bin Laden ad was launched before Hussein was nabbed. Financed in part by labor unions that support Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt (who voted yes on the war, but who denies ties to the sponsor), the ad has angered self-described "Deaniacs." The other day, they warned Dean's rivals: "Don't try to tar our candidate or his supporters with a brush dipped in the stinking tar of fear."
The ad's sponsor is a group called Americans for Jobs, Health Care, and Progressive Values; its spokesman is Robert Gibbs, a former Kerry aide. The other day, Gibbs defended the bin Laden ad, saying: "The discussion about foreign policy experience is one that we need to be conducting now, before we get any further into the campaign. That was the ad's intent, and that was accomplished."
But Heather Hurlburt, a former speechwriter for Clinton-era Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, is worried that the stop-Dean forces are essentially giving aid and comfort to the political enemy, providing the Bush campaign team with all kinds of ammunition for later use against Dean.
"There's something self-destructive about Democrats, in our psychological makeup," said Hurlburt. "We go on the attack against one of our candidates - and we pick an attack that the Republicans can run against us. We're doing this to ourselves."
The Dean team argues that Dean's antiwar stance would actually make him the strongest Bush challenger, because he would pull the biggest share of grassroots Democrats. And a new poll in pivotal Pennsylvania, conducted on the eve of Hussein's capture, makes that point: when matched against Bush, Dean trails by only 6 points. All his rivals fare worse, because they don't score as well among core Democratic voters.
The crucial question is whether Dean can gain credibility with the millions who aren't angry at Bush or the war. As presidential scholar George Edwards put it: "It's one thing when you're speaking to the converted. It's another when you're trying to convert others."
It would help, said several Dean critics, if the candidate would simply master the fundamentals.
It was Dean, after all, who appeared on a cable TV show earlier this month and suggested that the United States can halt Iran's nuclear program by putting the squeeze on "the Soviet Union."
He used the term four times. The Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991.