Dean said the charges and countercharges between Clinton and Obama have gotten too personal at times. He declined to say how they have crossed the line, but he said he's made it clear privately when it has happened.
"You do not want to demoralize the base of the Democratic Party by having the Democrats attack each other," he said Thursday during the interview in his office at Democratic National Committee headquarters. "Let the media and the Republicans and the talking heads on cable television attack and carry on, fulminate at the mouth. The supporters should keep their mouths shut about this stuff on both sides because that is harmful to the potential victory of a Democrat."
Superdelegates -- the nearly 800 party and elected officials who can support whomever they choose at the convention, regardless of what happens in the primaries -- should make up their minds before August to avoid a fight at the convention, Dean said.
"There is no point in waiting," he said. The Democratic political organization "is as good or better as the Republicans', and we haven't been able to say that for about 30 years. But that all doesn't make any difference if people are really disenchanted or demoralized by a convention that's really ugly and nasty."
Dean commented during a wide-ranging, 40-minute interview about his leadership during a nominating season that has lasted longer than most expected and that has left the party with some tough issues to resolve. Among them:
-- Florida and Michigan Democrats brazenly violated party rules by holding primaries ahead of schedule and lost their delegates to the convention as punishment. Both states are now demanding that they not be shut out of the decision-making process because of it.
-- Since neither Clinton nor Obama are likely to secure the nomination with just the delegates won in the primaries and caucuses, the nominee will probably be determined by the superdelegates. That has some activists objecting that insiders could overturn the will of the voters.
-- Dean has raised record amounts of money -- the $51.5 million the DNC brought in in 2007 was a record for a non-election year. And he's spent it, too, on trying to build organizations in the 50 states. Campaign finance reports this month show the party with $4.5 million after accounting for debt, compared with $25 million for the Republican National Committee -- and the Democrats have no nominee to help replenish the coffers.
-- Not to mention that Clinton's and Obama's campaigns spend every day trying to tear each other down -- and are unlikely to stop anytime soon -- while Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the certain Republican nominee, is busy preparing for the general election. Even Dean said he doesn't expect the campaign to end until the last nominating contest is held in June.
Dean, the former governor of Vermont and 2004 presidential candidate, said he knows his critics say he should take a bigger leadership role in resolving some of these disputes. But he said that's not his role. Rather, he thinks of himself as a referee who enforces the rules in a close basketball game.
"Somebody is going to lose," Dean said. "My job is to make sure the person who loses feels like they have been treated fairly so that their supporters will support the winner."
Dean said the massive numbers of people showing up to participate in Democratic nominating contests across the country gives him encouragement that the eventual nominee will be well positioned to win the White House.
He said it is good for the candidates to debate controversies like the incendiary sermons by Obama's pastor and Clinton's different accounts of danger on a trip to Bosnia as first lady. If Democrats didn't deal with them now, he said Republicans will surely make use of them in the fall.
Dean also reflected the concerns of many Democrats who worry about Obama and Clinton tearing each other down.
"What I don't want to do is have the Democrats make a stupid mistake in April and then be sorry they said that in October and end up with some more right-wing extremists on the Supreme Court," he said.
Dean's supporters say he's working behind the scenes to resolve some of the issues. He's been consulting with party stalwarts about how to wrap up the nomination quickly after the voting ends in June, including former Vice President Al Gore, former presidential candidate John Edwards, former Sen. George Mitchell, former president Jimmy Carter, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.
"There'll be some nasty fights if it goes to convention, and people will walk out," Dean said. "But I've also been talking to a fairly significant number of, by and large, nonaligned people about how we might resolve this."
Dean wouldn't talk in detail about what the plan is, but it likely involves encouraging superdelegates to pick a candidate shortly after the voting ends. He said he will not encourage any delegate to vote one way or another.
"I am going to stand up for the rules, and I know I'm doing the right thing most of the time because I've got both Clinton people and Obama people mad at me," he said.
For instance, while Obama's campaign has been encouraging superdelegates to support the candidate with the most pledged delegates -- which almost certainly will be Obama -- Dean says the rules don't require that and superdelegates are free to chose who they want.
On the other side, Clinton has been arguing lately that even pledged delegates -- awarded to a candidate based on the outcome of state contests -- aren't bound to vote for that candidate at the convention. Dean called that "a very technical argument."
"You aren't going to get pledged delegates to move unless something really shocking happens," he said. And he thinks it unlikely the superdelegates would support a candidate who did not have the most pledged delegates.
Dean also said the Michigan and Florida delegates will be seated at the convention. But he won't force a resolution because he said there's nothing the Obama and Clinton campaigns can support at this point.
"You bring both sides together and say, `Don't you think it's time that the two campaigns made a deal on how we're going to do this?"' Dean said. "Let me just say that the campaigns believe that kind of a deal is premature right now."
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