Howard, Howard, He’s Our Man

Bush’s Advisers Focus on Dean as Likely Opponent Next Year.

A day after Al Gore endorsed Dr. Dean, giving the former Vermont governor his strongest claim yet to the role of front-runner for the nomination, Democrats as well as Republicans scrambled on Wednesday to assess and adapt to the changing political landscape. Dr. Dean’s Democratic rivals sharpened their attacks on him, even as Republicans — perhaps motivated as much by a desire to guard against complacency in their ranks as by any newfound respect for Dr. Dean’s electoral strength — talked of their plans for a tough general election faceoff against him.

One Republican who speaks regularly to White House officials said there was serious thought about pursuing the earliest and most aggressive of the plans under consideration: putting Mr. Bush into full campaign mode soon after he delivers the State of the Union address in late January. In that way, the Republican said, Mr. Bush could get a quick start on defining Dr. Dean as too far to the left for the country before the former Vermont governor can wrap up the primaries and begin trying to move himself toward the political center.

Other Republicans who are kept apprised of the Bush campaign’s thinking said that the issue of timing continued to be hotly debated among Mr. Bush’s advisers and that the president had not decided how quickly he wants to drop his strategy of remaining publicly detached from partisan warfare.

Throughout the year, many Republicans have been longing for a Bush-Dean matchup, saying Dr. Dean’s opposition to the war with Iraq, his call for rolling back Mr. Bush’s tax cuts and his support for civil unions between gay people would open the door to a Republican landslide in November.