In case you missed it, Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who now chairs the Democratic National Committee, just blew through town. He was here April 13 for a downtown DNC fundraiser that was closed to the press. If you're tearing up at the thought that you missed him, calm down and put on a happy face. He's going to be back soon enough--on Sunday, June 5, events TBA, according to the seattlefordean.com website. And here's a bit of breaking news: I have it on good authority that John Kerry is dropping by as well. He'll be here on May 1 and 2. The early word is that he'll do a fundraiser for the state Dems and an event at Town Hall to tout his health care proposal to cover uninsured kids.

With all of this attention from the national leaders of the party, am I the only one wondering if Seattle hasn't entered some kind of strange time warp? It feels more than a little like February 2004, when Kerry and Dean were still battling mano a mano in Seattle for the Democratic presidential nomination, rather than April 2005, when morose Dems find themselves slouching towards irrelevance.

That is probably more than coincidence. The election may be long lost, but in this era of the permanent campaign, the slugfest goes on. It's a championship bout between the heavy-punching Dean and the dancing Kerry. The title at stake? Supreme leader of the Democratic Party, at least until a new presidential frontrunner (okay, Hillary) emerges after the 2006 election.

Dean has already pledged he's not running in 2008. Kerry has left the option open, but few give him a realistic chance of getting anywhere if he tries again for the brass ring.

The competition, though, is still real, and it makes perfect sense that Dean vs. Kerry, round 2, is going to play out in Seattle. This city encapsulates everything that's right--and wrong--about the modern Democratic Party. It is the ground zero of latte liberalism, a hotbed of environmental consciousness (Kerryites) and communitarian social activism (Deaniacs). It is First Hill liberals (signature event: Town Hall panel discussion on salmon preservation) versus Capitol Hill liberals (signature event: SCCC protest against something or other). It's urban, cutting edge, educated, secular minded, diverse, active, vibrant, and brimming over with discretionary income. It is also hopelessly out of touch with the rest of the heartland, self-absorbed to the point of narcissism, a bit pretentious, rigid in its thinking, and constructed as a temple to cherished baby-boomer counterculture ideas of fading relevance.

Both Kerry and Dean want to rule here. But it's lonely at the top--there is only room for one.

In some sense, the two men have undergone a strange role reversal in recent months. Dean, the outsider firebrand, has become a sanctum sanctorum player since vanquishing more-establishment rivals for the DNC leadership post. He's toned down the hot talk, cozied up to pro-life Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, and made dutiful pilgrimages to the reddest of red states to offer ideological sustenance to the dispirited blue-tinged minorities.

Meanwhile, Kerry, liberated from the increasingly decrepit Politburo of handlers, poll watchers, and cystic tacticians that rule the roost in the other Democratic Washington, has been letting it all hang out. He's bitching about voter intimidation, calling on his Internet supporters to pressure Rhode Island moderate Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee to vote against the nomination of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations, and generally raising a little hell.

Of course, one could argue that that doesn't make him Howard Dean, it makes him Al Gore. Gore, too, suddenly discovered the virtues of honest expression and speaking truth to power after he lost to Bush the Younger. And Dean has started to reclaim some of his own turf in recent days, giving national interviews and making major public appearances where he unleashes the heavy artillery on the nefarious forces of darkness. For instance, his attack on Arnold at the California Democratic convention last weekend, where he denounced "corrupt Republicans." Or his inartful pledge to politicize the death of Terri Schiavo in the '06 campaign (there's nothing wrong with doing that, but you should never say it out loud).

So the merry-go-round goes round and round. Seattle loves Dean. Seattle loves Kerry. May the best man win.

sandeep@thestranger.com

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