The Great Liberal Hope

Howard Dean is aiming for the White House, but first it's Miami Beach

Jordan, an oasis of stability compared with many of its neighbors, is still a dictatorship, one in which al Qaeda sympathizers are kept under control only by the apparatus of a police state. And despite being flooded with billions of dollars in U.S. aid, even ostensible American allies such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia remain both brutally repressive and hotbeds for Islamic fascism. So how is merely dumping more money on these governments going to change anything?

Alas, that would be a question for another day. Dean's aides swooped in -- he was late for his appearance at Nerve.

Off and running: Howard Dean hits South Beach on his way to Washington
Steve Satterwhite
Off and running: Howard Dean hits South Beach on his way to Washington

Follow that car! Dean and his entourage piled into a silver sedan -- no limousine liberals here -- and sped off while Kulchur and a photographer weaved through traffic after them. Dean was en route to his 6:30 p.m. speech at Nerve, a recently opened Beach nightclub hosting a fete in his honor. The event's organizers had been hoping for a turnout similar to the packed frenzy that greeted Janet Reno's Level appearance during her gubernatorial run last year. And by scheduling his appearance to coincide with "Sperm" -- a new early-evening tea dance hosted by Jeffrey Sanker -- Dean's people had been predicting a standing-room-only throng of 300 gay partiers, antiwar folks, and local pols all cheering their man on.

Unfortunately, while the association of Sanker's name is usually enough to fill a club, the shirtless masses were curiously absent at Nerve. Only about two dozen people wandered about, hollering into each other's ears amid the thumping house music and flashing lights, trading explanations for the empty club. What was to blame: Poor publicity? A lack of local liberals? "Nobody on South Beach knows where Vermont is," cracked Dean volunteer Lorenzo Lebrija.

Kulchur walked out to the street just as Dean's car zipped past and several campaign workers shouted out in recognition. But as the minutes ticked by, the candidate himself was still missing in action. Back inside, one of Dean's staffers ominously pointed out Kulchur to a volunteer, who then asked Kulchur to leave: "This event is closed to the media."

It was an odd turnabout. Moreover there was no action here to be ejected from. Kulchur refused to leave without an explanation, which soon produced an even stranger announcement. Owing to a "scheduling problem," Dean would not be able to speak -- he was making a dash for the airport. One woman angrily demanded her money back as campaign staffers broke the news to the remaining stragglers.

Were Dean's staffers worried about losing face if such a meager display of support were reported? "He could have at least come in for five minutes, just to speak with people personally," remarked Kate Bono, a 26-year-old Miami social psychologist and disappointed Dean booster. Danny, a drag queen roused from bed specifically for the occasion by Nerve co-owner Rudolf Pieper (at the ungodly hour of 6:00 p.m., no less), was even less forgiving. Raising a cross eyebrow beneath his blond wig, he snapped, "For this I put on my heels?"

Perhaps sensing some looming bad press, just ten minutes later, Dean was on his cell phone with Kulchur, ready to answer a few more questions -- though whether he was being chauffeured to his flight or relaxing at the Biltmore Hotel with the rest of his staff was unclear.

"We do low-end fundraisers all the time," Dean said, dismissing any thoughts of disappointment over the lackluster crowd at Nerve. He was more interested in discussing campaign strategy. "Half of [Ralph] Nader's votes will go to me," he predicted, a significant pool of support overlooked by many. Bob Graham as his vice-prez? "He would definitely be on the short list." Getting his message out with limited funds? "Be very clear."

On that note, Kulchur circled back to one of the centerpieces of Dean's public persona -- his courageous endorsement of gay "civil unions." In Sanker's living room he stressed that as president he'd ensure federal benefits flowed to gay couples in states that passed "civil union" laws similar to Vermont's. But he wouldn't enact a federal "civil union" law. The more Kulchur mulled it over, the bigger the loophole seemed to grow.

"I'm not anxious to have more federal intrusion," Dean explained, launching into a defense of states' rights that eerily recalled Southern segregationist governors during the Sixties. But what if some governors, citing the wishes of their constituents, ignored President Dean and simply refused to pass "civil union" laws for gays? "We'll deal with that then," he said testily. "I don't have a plan."

You'll deal with that then? Aren't you the candidate who doesn't stick to safe answers?

"You're now beginning to tick me off," Dean bristled before returning to his measured argument against "too much federal power." Kulchur pressed on over Dean's protests, invoking the image of Alabama Gov. George Wallace embracing the mantle of states' rights as he literally blocked a university doorway to bar a black student's entry, stepping aside only after President Kennedy called in troops. If a president is unwilling to use federal power to enforce civil rights -- for blacks or gays -- how are things ever going to change? "Look, you go ask any of the other candidates for president if they support civil unions!" Dean shouted angrily.

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