Dean tries to choose words carefully

AMES, Iowa – Howard Dean’s off-the-cuff straight talk helped propel him to the front of the Democratic presidential field. It’s a style he would not think of abandoning, but one that’s forcing him to be more careful with his words.

The leader in the nine-way race has a full, nearly yearlong record of extemporaneous remarks and apologies. Mea culpas to rivals. Regrets over his Confederate flag comment. Some careless language about the Middle East process, a topic that demands precision.

But Dean isn’t about to become scripted, according to his advisers. It isn’t his way and aides recognize that his directness is part of his appeal.

“Not every word that Howard Dean says is written for him,” said Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi. “In fact, almost no words are written for him. He doesn’t speak from a teleprompter because you don’t say anything when you run that way. He’s running for president saying things.”

Still, the former Vermont governor is learning to hold his tongue in some situations. Consider his appearance late Friday night at Iowa State University.

Students, jammed together, applauded the candidate’s comments about health care, jobs and foreign policy. But they really were energized when Dean started discussing whether marijuana use should be illegal.

He was outlining his plan to keep kids out of trouble when someone in the crowd said the drug should be decriminalized. Dean responded that wouldn’t solve the problem, “but since you brought it up, I think substance abuse should be treated as a medical problem not a judicial problem.” A cheer erupted and some chanted, “We want Dean! We want Dean!”

Dean basked in the approval but deftly changed the subject before he got carried away.

“Uh-oh, I’ll be careful what I say. The press is here. We don’t want to make any smart remarks,” he said.

Dean is learning that his own words can be his worst enemy in his pursuit of the nomination. He is trying to find a balance between his sharp retort and his tendency to say things so quickly that he will regret them later.

As the front-runner two months before the Iowa caucuses, his rivals are keeping close watch, set to pounce in hopes of knocking him from the top.

When Dean told The Des Moines Register earlier this month – “I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks” – he was repeating a version of a line he had been using all year.

The argument is that Democrats should try to reach out to Southern whites who typically support Republicans. But his language was clumsy and the comment was offensive to some black and Southern voters. Initially, he refused to back down, then apologized amid a firestorm.