Is Howard Dean indeed the Republicans’ dream Democrat, George McGovern or Eugene McCarthy come again, yet another pure, naïve warrior doomed to lead the Democrats either into schism or decades in the wilderness? Or might he just be something more?

In fact, the evidence is already overwhelming that he is going to be far more than McCarthy, the famous Democratic insurgent candidate against Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War in 1968. First, McCarthy rallied his core support from rebellious, young, long-haired baby-boomer students. Dean appeals to millions of those very same baby boomers, but they are now the middle-aged core of middle-class America rather than its challenging peripheral outsiders.

Second, McCarthy had no economic platform worth the name. He opposed Vietnam on grounds of idealistic principle and had nothing to say to pocketbooks or bellies. He had no serious self-interest pitch for any sizeable portion of the electorate. Dean, by contrast, has strong economic rhetoric that speaks to the fiscally literate concerns of the middle class, and he has adapted it to speak to working-class Democrats.

Third, McCarthy was painted by LBJ and the Republicans of the day as a whining loser on Vietnam. But the same charges already look unlikely to stick to Dean, though Karl Rove will certainly try. The 1968 election came when the 27-year national consensus to send scores of thousands of American boys to die continents away in wars of ideology was still strong, though it was certainly fraying. Since Vietnam, a far different national consensus, shaped by Ronald Reagan, has governed the commitment of American troops to wars around the world. That consensus has been: in fast, get a decision fast, don’t get bogged down, don’t suffer serious casualties, and then get out fast. Every one of those principles has already been broken in Iraq.

Finally, Gene McCarthy emulated William Jennings Bryan in turning a political campaign into a kulturkampf—a cultural war against the American mainstream. And the mainstream responded by rejecting him. Had he won his party’s presidential nomination at the tumultuous 1968 Chicago convention, it is likely he would have gone down to defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon as catastrophically as Sen. George McGovern—an authentic war hero, no less—did four years later. Whether or not he is, Dean is campaigning as a middle-class moderate, not its antithesis. But if he is no Gene McCarthy, then who is he?

Dean is the Democrats’ Barry Goldwater. Goldwater, after all, was an idealistic insurgent who astonished a complacent east-coast establishment out of touch with the party’s grassroots activists and its historic principles and values. Goldwater lost in an historic landslide to Lyndon Johnson in 1964 but in the process revitalized a Republican Party that had been in the doldrums since Herbert Hoover led it there 34 years before, at the height of the Great Depression. But the real significance of Howard Dean’s campaign and the fervent support it is already generating dates back earlier than that.

Here is the political fairytale. There was a gallant prince, a repeatedly re-elected governor of a Northeastern state to be exact. He did not exactly look like a prince or a president. He was a mouthy smart aleck who acted like he had stepped straight off the sidewalks of New York City, which indeed he had. But he developed a fervent support among a vast political constituency that had not voted Democratic in more than 30 years. They recognized that he understood their life and death concerns and advocated policies that would save their lives and ensure the security of their families. He was especially popular among classes of voters who had suffered discrimination and had been the butt of prejudice. All this, and he was a fiscal conservative dedicated to a prosperous, industrially strong America.

But powerful interest groups in his own party opposed this prince. The complacent establishment, which accepted the Republican orthodoxies of the day, was determined he should never get his party’s presidential nomination, much less win the presidency. And they were allied with the powerful Southern wing of the party, patriotic and devout but also filled with traditional cultural suspicion of the Northeast. These forces denied the prince the presidential nomination on his first bid but could not prevent him getting it four years later. Even then, they fled the party and subjected him to a vitriolic calumny unprecedented in more than 70 years, and he lost. Such was the fate of Al Smith, Democratic Party nominee for the presidency of the United States in 1928.

Since 1936, when he committed political hara-kiri by embracing the Liberty Lobby in jealous hatred of his own heir, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Smith has been the forgotten man of U.S. political history, airbrushed out of existence by successive generations of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike. But there could have been no FDR, and no 36-year era of Democratic national political dominance without him. He was to the Democrats of the age of Franklin Roosevelt what Goldwater has been in the age of Ronald Reagan. He was the pioneer who showed the way. And the trails he blazed have eerie parallels to the ones Howard Dean is now riding.

Where Al Smith repeatedly clashed with Tammany Hall and Democratic power brokers led by John W. Davis and John J. Raskob in the Roaring Twenties, Dean is anathema to Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Joe Lieberman, the Democratic Leadership Council, and Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe, the party fat cats of the Shameless Nineties. Indeed, as my late friend Jim Chapin, political commentator for UPI and a walking almanac of American political history, used to put it, “Terry McAuliffe is John J. Raskob.” Jim died more than a year ago, before the Dean phenomenon erupted, but I have little doubt he would have recognized Dean as Al Smith redivivus.

As the great political scientist Samuel Lubell pointed out half a century ago, even in his apparent landslide defeat at the hands of Herbert Hoover in 1928, Smith won repeated victories for Roosevelt and his successors. He broke the 32-year lock the Republicans had enjoyed on Northeastern immigrant-group votes (except for Irish Democrats) since William Jennings Bryan had driven them into the GOP camp in 1896.

In all that time, through the great Progressive Era, Jews, Italians, Poles, Slovaks, and many others in the steel mills of Pennsylvania and the garment sweatshops of New York City had always voted Republican because Republican policies kept their wages coming and their lunch pails full. Bryan and his heir William Gibbs McAdoo, with their obvious antipathy for the culture of the cities, from the piano rags of Scott Joplin to the exuberant horn-tootin’ of Louis Armstrong, terrified them. Until Smith came along.

Smith brought the working-class legions of the great Eastern cities into the Democratic Party the same way Dean now holds out the promise of recruiting the great white middle-class suburbs, essentially conservative and Republican ever since 1972, back into the Democratic party’s ranks. The suburbs have not been Democratic territory since LBJ’s 1964 blow-out of Goldwater. Even Bill Clinton, the first successfully re-elected two-term Democratic president since the fabled FDR himself, could not really conquer them. He owed both his 1992 and 1996 victories to Ross Perot’s potent Reform Party candidacies, and Perot, with his emphasis on fiscal conservatism and the dangers of the federal budget deficit, drew his strength from the suburbs where Dean is pitching his case most effectively today.

Can Dean outdo Smith? Can he avoid the catastrophic fission between the liberal Northeast and the patriotic South that doomed Smith in both ’24 and ’28? The odds are certainly against him, but they are not insurmountable. Dean and his strategists must recall that they are running to win the suburban middle class. This is their schwerpunkt—the strategic main axis of their campaign. In this, they are echoing Smith in 1928 with the very great difference that Herbert Hoover did not have 10 or 20 body bags a week coming from the battlefields of the Middle East when he ran for office in 1928. And major economic indicators were much better for him than they are for President Bush. The omens suggest that Howard Dean will be his party’s new Al Smith—and he could do far better.

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Martin Sieff is chief news analyst for United Press International. His book American Epochs: The Eras of U.S. Political History will be published next year.