Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not because Dean is one of the most liberal candidates in a party that seems to be careening to the left. It is because Dean has captured the five elusive attributes a candidate needs to be successful in an election -- none of which have anything to do with ideology.
The first is believability. Does the candidate have a message that he truly believes in? When the candidate speaks do people feel that it comes from the heart or do their baloney meters spike into the red zone? In the last election, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., cornered the market on believability and voters embraced his "straight talk." On the other hand, voters felt that former Vice President Al Gore was continuously searching for the right words to appeal to them. He seemed like a politician -- a dirty word to most voters.
Whatever people feel about Howard Dean's views, they do believe they are his own.
Does the candidate enjoy giving his message? "Enjoyment" is not an attribute that political pundits generally point to as critical, but it should not be discounted. Enjoyment is a proxy for passion. When the candidate delivers his message to voters, does it inspire? If so, then a candidate is more likely to attract highly committed voters -- a necessity in a crowded primary where the allegiances of voters shift from candidate to candidate. In the 1992 Republican primary, Steve Forbes had a popular message (remember the flat tax?), but he delivered it with the demeanor of an undertaker. Voters drifted away. Like Bill Clinton, Howard Dean loves to campaign and it shows with the enthusiastic response he gets from voters.
Next, are the campaign's resources sufficient to get the message out?
In 1996, Pat Buchanan had a powerful conservative message and campaigned with the moxie of a Hollywood gunslinger. But he had no money and couldn't transmit his message beyond those who saw him in person or on the news. Resources may not be a factor for Dean. He raised more money than any other Democratic primary candidate during the months of April through June.
Is there a prevailing current of voter sentiment that a candidate can seize upon to gain momentum? Ross Perot found it in 1992 when he used the federal budget deficit to tap into voter discontent over ineffective government and the failing economy.
In 2003, Howard Dean found it in the anger of Democratic primary voters. They are still angry about hanging chads in Florida, the war in Iraq, and corporate scandals like Enron.
Dean is the only top-tier candidate to explicitly tap into voter anger. He is the anti-Bush candidate, which is appealing to many Democratic voters still seething about an election they believe was stolen from them in 2000. The rest of the leading candidates have moved on, but many of the voters -- and Howard Dean -- have not.
Is there a new campaign technology that can tip the balance in favor of an enterprising candidate? Just as in business, innovation in politics portends success. Richard Nixon in 1968 was the first candidate to hire Madison Avenue ad men and Hollywood television producers to totally remake his image through television ads.
The new technology today is the Internet. Every candidate has a Web site but only Dean has a full-fledged Internet presence. He is the darling of moveon.org, one of the most effective of the many internet grassroots organizations. He has found an untapped source of voters and donors that no other candidate will have.
The debate in Democratic circles centers around what the success of the liberal Dean candidacy means for the party. Many believe that a Dean victory next August means a Bush landslide in November. That may be, but they are missing the real lesson. It's not about left, center or right. Taken together, these five attributes - believing in what you're saying, saying it with passion, raising the money to get the word out, tapping into the undercurrent of public opinion, and reaching new voters through new technology - add up to the central quality that voters are looking for in a candidate: Leadership.
-- Jim Kessler is President of the Washington-based consulting firm Definition Strategies and is not affiliated with any of the candidates in the Democratic presidential primary.
-- "Outside View" commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers who specialize in a variety of important global issues.