Howard Dean, the populist former governor of Vermont and a strong critic of the war in Iraq, won the endorsement of Al Gore in his bid for the Democratic nomination for the American presidency yesterday, ensuring that the conflict will take centre stage in next year's battle for the White House.
Mr Gore, making his announcement in a packed hall in Harlem, conferred a mantle of mainstream respectability on Mr Dean, who until now has been labelled an insurgent from his party leftist fringe.
It also suggests a new calculation by the Democrat establishment that the Iraq war, and its violent hangover, may be the weak spot that might yet topple George Bush.
New polls showed that Mr Dean, who has strenuously appealed to the blue-collar and union membership of the party, is ahead of all of his eight rivals for the nomination. A CNN-Gallup poll yesterday gave him 25 per cent support nationally, eight points ahead of General Wesley Clark, in second place with 17 per cent.
For the first time since the torment of 2000, when they lost the White House to George Bush after the balloting débâcle of Florida, Democrats may at last be glimpsing the shape of next year's fight. If it is between Mr Bush and Mr Dean, it will be a clear clash of right versus left of a kind not seen in America in a generation.
The backing of the former vice-president will reinforce the perception of Mr Dean as the front-runner, even though there remains a long battle ahead. It is five weeks before the first votes are cast in the sequence of state primaries that will determine who will be the Democratic candidate. In a strategy designed to set himself apart from his main rivals, Mr Dean has consistently - and with bare-knuckled rhetoric - faulted Mr Bush for invading Iraq.
Mr Gore yesterday lent passionate and prestigious echo to Mr Dean's anti-war song, calling the military action in Iraq a "catastrophic mistake".
"Our country has been weakened in its ability to fight the war against terror because of the catastrophic mistake the Bush administration made in taking us to war in Iraq," Mr Gore said. And in a clear allusion to the Vietnam War, he suggested that Mr Bush had thrust America into a "quagmire".
The glee of the Dean camp was evident. It chartered three jets to ferry its candidate, Mr Gore and reporters to a second event in Iowa, where the race for the Democratic nomination will kick off with caucus voting on 19 January. The first formal primary will be in New Hampshire eight days later.
For many of the other candidates, Mr Gore's move spelt ed disaster, in particular for the centrist Senator Joe Lieberman, his running mate in 2000. It looked like a personal betrayal of Mr Lieberman, who held off entering this race earlier this year until he was sure that Mr Gore would not run.
Also wounded by the day's events was Congressman Dick Gephardt, who was counting on nosing ahead of Mr Dean in Iowa. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts was left similarly high and dry. Both men supported the war. General Clark, who has surrounded himself with former Gore aides, was also left in the cold.
By choosing Harlem as the venue of the announcement, Mr Dean was trying to address what may be a weakness of his campaign - consistently low polling numbers among African-Americans who may be crucial to his chances in the deep South and in Florida.
Taking so strong a stance on Iraq carries some risk for Mr Dean. But while some observers had expected him to temper his criticism as his poll ratings improved, that now seems unlikely. Instead, he has been emboldened by the continuing violence in Iraq, underlined again yesterday by the downing of an American helicopter near Fallujah and a suicide bomb attack in northern Iraq that injured 31 US soldiers.
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