As Dean campaign ends, damage control specialist Grossman moves on

washington | In the beginning, he was the link to respectability, the known entity in a campaign touting its outsider status.

When times got tough, he was the one doing damage control, using his clout in the Jewish community to calm fears and reassure the hesitant.

And now, with the end in sight, he was one of the first to go, the first to read the handwriting on the wall.

Throughout the primary process, Steve Grossman, former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has maintained his image as an influential leader of the Democratic Party, shepherding Howard Dean, a little-known candidate, to the top of the polls, and suffering little damage when the same candidate failed to win a single primary.

At the same time, he has shown his influence within the Jewish community. At Grossman’s urging, leaders of several prominent Jewish organizations came to Dean’s defense as he was being pegged as anti-Israel in an anonymouse-mail campaign.

Grossman left Dean’s campaign, which he served as national co-chairman, Monday, Feb. 16, a day before the candidate had a poor showing in the Wisconsin primary.

In Wisconsin, Dean garnered just 18 percent of the vote, behind Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who received 40 percent, and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who won 34 percent.

On Wednesday, Feb. 18, Dean ended his campaign.

“I am no longer actively pursuing the presidency,” Dean said in Burlington, Vt. “We will, however, continue to build a new organization using our enormous grassroots network to continue our effort to transform the Democratic Party and to change our country.”

Grossman said Monday he would leave the campaign if Dean did not win the Wisconsin primary, and would support Kerry, the likely nominee.

Later in the day, after the story became public, Dean announced that Grossman was no longer with the campaign, telling reporters in Wisconsin, “I absolutely don’t feel betrayed by Grossman. I consider him to be a friend.”

Grossman and Kerry have been friends for more than 30 years, and Grossman chaired Kerry’s 1996 re-election campaign for the Senate.

However, the relationship has been strained since Kerry did not back Grossman’s bid for Massachusetts governor in 2002.

Insiders say Grossman’s announcement had little to do with his personal views and more to do with his role as a leader of the Democratic Party.

Alan Solomont, a key Kerry fund-raiser with ties to the Jewish community, said he had been in consultation with his friend for several weeks about moving to back Kerry.

“Steve wants to beat George W. Bush as much as anyone,” Solomont said. In taking this step, Grossman was “thinking about his own role in electing a Democrat as president.”

Others said that the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee was trying to send a signal that no matter what Dean decided to do after Wisconsin, Grossman and others wanted to differentiate between a viable campaign and one that was being prolonged to send a message to the party establishment.

Before Tuesday, Feb. 17, Dean had suggested he might continue his campaign beyond the Wisconsin primary, in part out of loyalty to those who have backed his candidacy. In the end, Dean chose to suspend campaigning, but kept his name on future primary ballots.

Grossman and others worried that Dean would be a distraction, and hurt efforts of the Democratic Party to rally around Kerry.

Because Dean, the early front-runner in polls, had amassed a number of significant endorsement from Democratic leaders, including former Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley, his continued candidacy would likely have stood in the way of party unity.

Grossman was crafting a path for other Democratic luminaries to back out of their endorsements while saving face if Dean continued to campaign, insiders say.

“Grossman threw himself in front of the train to make it easier for others to follow,” said one knowledgeable source.

Grossman is well known in American Jewish and Democratic circles for being able to “take one for the team” from time to time, putting aside, for instance, his own political aspirations in 1992 to become president of AIPAC.

He left that post to chair the DNC in 1997, at a time when ethics investigations hung like a cloud over the Democratic Party. He resigned 22 months later, saying he needed to spend more time with his family.

Grossman, whose 58th birthday was Feb. 17, is the president of the Massachusetts Envelope Company, a family business started by his grandfather.

Grossman surprised many in 2002 when he announced he would serve as Dean’s co chair, even though Kerry was going to run as well.

Grossman was one of the first prominent Democrats to back Dean, then a little-known Vermont governor seen as too much of an outsider to amass any momentum in the Democratic primaries.

But through grass-roots organization and Internet based fund raising, Dean’s campaign took off.

And at nearly the same time, Dean needed to do damage control in the Jewish community.

Dean was quoted in September as calling for an “even-handed” policy toward the Middle East, a comment taken by many in the Jewish community as a call against current U.S. policies toward Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians.

The antidote to the problem was showcasing Grossman.

“There are certain organizations that we all turn to know where candidates of all stripes stand,” said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “AIPAC is one of those and he wears the AIPAC hat.”