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Does Howard Dean Still Have a Following?

WASHINGTON - Howard Dean got a lot of media attention this week for saying Democrats should kill the Senate health care reform bill because "it's an insurance company's dream."

The question is, does anyone important to the debate care what he thinks?

The White House quickly dismissed the comments by the former Democratic National Committee chairman and Vermont governor. And Dean's rhetoric hasn't persuaded liberal Democratic senators that they should vote against the health care bill.

"It's nonsense and it's irresponsible and, coming from him as a physician, it's stunning and he's wrong," said one of those liberals, Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, speaking Wednesday on MSNBC. Dean's supporters say he's a relevant voice for a larger constituency, one that helped propel the Obama administration into office and shouldn't be ignored.

"If Dean wasn't relevant, you wouldn't have the White House pushing so hard against him," said Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos liberal blog. "And it really is disappointing."

The latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll showed that support for the Democrats' health care plan has fallen to a new low of 32 percent, with 47 percent calling it a "bad idea." Much of the recent erosion in support has come from a dropoff among the core Democratic constituencies, including minorities and women, that Dean wooed during his 2004 presidential campaign.

"Their own people for the first time ... said this is a bad idea," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted the poll with Democrat Peter Hart. "Hispanics, people who make less than $30,000, women, 18- to 34-year-olds. And guess why. Because they are ticked that they pulled the public option. The bill is not what they want."

Dean supports either creating a government-run "public" health insurance option or letting let people between 55 and 64 buy into Medicare, but those proposals lack support among conservative Democrats and probably won't be part of the final Senate bill.

Based on that reality, Dean told a Vermont Public Radio audience on Tuesday that the health care bill should be killed. And he wrote in a Thursday op-ed piece in the Washington Post that he wouldn't vote for the measure if he were a senator because it "would do more harm than good."

Dean acknowledged what he called the legislation's good points, such as a provision to expand eligibility for Medicaid, but he blasted provisions that would fine people who don't sign up for insurance and that would allow insurers to charge older people higher prices.

"In short, the winners in this bill are insurance companies," he wrote.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs countered that the bill would cut costs, reduce the deficit, insure 30 million Americans who are currently uninsured, and bar insurers from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions.

"I don't think any rational person would say killing a bill makes a whole lot of sense at this point," Gibbs said.

Such reactions recall efforts to sideline Dean when he opposed the Iraq war while running for president in 2004, said Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham law professor who was Dean's director of online organizing during the campaign. Dean speaks for some of the Democratic Party's more liberal members who resist the party line and sometimes aren't heard, Teachout said.

"In '04, they @were relieved to hear a clearly stated, practical, experienced voice expressing their own views," she said. "That's the concern that the White House should have here."

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