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High-school politics is about one thing: popularity. What makes someone popular in high school is having the right looks, the right clothes, the right friends and the right words. You need to be all things to all people – and money never hurts.

Whoever said, “You can never go back to high school?” The race for who will challenge George W. Bush in ’04 has degenerated into a popularity contest that bears more resemblance to a race for president of the senior class than it does to a race for president of the United States. We have the media, of which I am a member, to thank for this popularity contest.

Howard Dean has gone from “front-runner” to “on life support” in the span of two weeks. He was portrayed as a 21st-century political maverick that defied all odds. He was the guy who was going to snatch America out of the jaws of special-interest groups. Today, he’s made fun of like the class dork. His famous Iowa speech is the focus of a whole new pop culture lexicon to include, “going Dean,” as in “going Postal,” or having a “Dean moment.” There’s even a website where you can hear the famous, “aaaargh” over and over and over again.

It’s only been a few weeks since the birth of this “Dean moment,” but the speech has already been analyzed more than the Gettysburg Address. Here are the critiques, “He’s not presidential.” “He’s angry.” “He’s a hot head.” “He’s a goof.” Some even suggest he suffers from a psychological illness called the “God complex.”

Having known Howard Dean’s record in Vermont for 10 years, I can assure you, he’s not crazy. But my opinion doesn’t count and neither does the opinion of the people of Vermont who elected him as governor for a decade. What matters most is the media now thinks he’s a loser and in a world where perception is reality, e.g., Iraq’s “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” Howard Dean has to climb a mountain the size of Everest if he is going to become the Democratic nominee.

Dean’s post-Iowa valiant attempt to show his human side on a “60 Minutes” interview with Diane Sawyer was dominated by questions about whether his wife, Dr. Judy Dean, would be comfortable dressing up as the first lady. CBS showed a clip of President and Mrs. Bush in full black-tie regalia looking like the homecoming queen and king. The message was clear: Howard Dean would be better off with an air-brushed beauty than a dedicated healer.

John Kerry, on the other hand, thanks again to the politics of popularity, has been resurrected from the ash heap of unfulfilled potential to become the new star quarterback. John F. Kerry (JFK) has the right looks (tall and handsome), the right clothes (dressed by his multi-millionaire wife), the right friends (veterans who served with him in Vietnam and, more importantly, the Teddy Kennedy Political Machine).

Kerry is also a quick study in being all things to all people. And money is no object for someone who can mortgage one of his homes to keep the campaign on life support in lean times. Money also enabled him to “helo” around the small towns of Iowa to pick up those last minute undecided votes while contemporaries schlepped around in buses.

Winning the popularity contest, however, is not without risk. John Kerry would do well to remember that Howard Dean was the star quarterback until Iowa. His front-runner status put him on the Republican’s most wanted list. I was in Iowa when “Club for Growth,” a corporate-backed special-interest group, aired a TV ad over and over and over again that, according to the Iowa voters I interviewed, led to Howard Dean’s third-place finish.

The ad showed a middle-aged couple, (typical caucus voters), talking about Howard Dean. The wife asked: “What do you think about Howard Dean’s proposal to raise your taxes by $1,900 a year?” The husband replies: “Well I think Howard Dean should take his tax hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading …” The wife jumps in: “body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont.” Game over for Howard.

This little TV ad is a drop in the bucket compared to what will be unleashed over the national air waves with the hundreds of millions of dollars burning a hole in the RNC’s tailored suit pockets.

While popularity contests bode well with high-school students, America needs and deserves more than a homecoming king and queen can deliver and it’s not prom night in America anymore. The Democrats need a nominee who can point to their record and list the specific measurable results of their leadership. The nominee must be able to compare his record to George W. Bush’s rhetoric, high-school popularity not withstanding.

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