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Campaign 2004: Democratic hopefuls turn to Indian vote

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BOSTON - Courting the Native vote is suddenly high priority for candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination caught off balance by the dramatic rise of former Vermont governor Howard Dean. And mixed with declarations of support for tribal sovereignty, they are lambasting Dean for anti-sovereignty and anti-recognition statements from his years as governor.

"It's immensely important," said a spokesman for U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D.-Mass., referring to the Indian voting bloc in the southwest that Kerry is wooing intensely.

Kerry isn't alone. No less than five candidates made a pitch at the annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians in Albuquerque, N.M. in mid-November, as well as Howard Dean himself. Two of the rivals appeared in person, retired Gen. Wesley Clark and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D.-Ohio, and Kerry spoke live over satellite hook-up. U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., sent taped speeches.

This unprecedented attention reflects not only the emergence of Indian voting power but the specific strategy these candidates have adopted to cope with Dean's early strength. Some of them have openly given up in the New Hampshire primary, first in the nation, where Dean has a commanding lead. They are pinning their hopes on the second tier of primaries on Feb. 3. Of the seven states voting that day, four, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico and North Dakota, have significant Indian populations. Furthermore, the tribal vote is a mainstay of the Democratic Party in states like Oklahoma where the Euro-American population tends to be heavily Republican.

Kerry released an eight-point agenda at NCAI, leading with a promise to promote sovereignty. He also urged tribal government involvement in the Department of Homeland Security. Gen. Clark hit many of the same points, but added that he understood the importance of sovereignty from his service as NATO commander during the Bosnian war.

Dean also produced a lengthy position paper, emphasizing his training as a doctor in calling for an upgraded Indian Health Service.

The "second-tier" strategy is prompting not only positive appeals and detailed position papers, but vigorous infighting as rivals portray each other as anti-Indian. At least three candidates are proving vulnerable.

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The prime target, understandably, is Dean himself, and the attacks might explain his reluctance to unseal papers from his terms as governor. In the past weeks, some of his letters have emerged anyway showing his support of the Istook bill, considered by tribes as a major attack on their sovereignty. The bill would have prevented the Secretary of the Interior from taking land into trust for a tribe until it entered into a compact with state and local governments to impose sales and excise taxes on all sales to non-tribal members.

According to a letter leaked to the Washington Post, Dean supported the bill and wrote to Rep. Ernest J. Istook, R-Okla., its sponsor, "Although Vermont does not have any Indian land, we lose tax revenues from sales made from Indian lands near our borders. It would be extremely unfortunate if the problem were allowed to grow. I will be pleased to lend my support to this bill."

Supporters of Vermont's indigenous Abenaki people are also complaining that he strongly opposed their federal recognition as governor. April St. Francis Rushlow, chief of the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi, Sokoki/ St. Francis Band, called his appearance at the NCAI "a joke." She and her late father, Homer St. Francis, often sparred with Dean during his eight years as governor.

Dean now says he has reversed his position on the Istook bill and abandoned his opposition to Indian gaming. His Web site includes a "Native American" position paper pledging to "support tribal sovereignty and government-to-government relations."

"He understands something that he didn't then," said a spokesman for his campaign in New Mexico.

But Dean isn't the only target. Other candidates are giving sharp elbows to Sen. Lieberman, who according to one recent poll is narrowly the front-runner in Oklahoma. (He was the choice of 10 percent, just ahead of Gen. Clark's 9 percent.) As Connecticut Attorney General and later U.S. Senator, Lieberman compiled a record of opposition to tribal recognition in a state where the two tribes which have won acknowledgement now operate two of the most profitable casinos in the world.

In the last two years, Lieberman twice submitted an amendment in the Senate to impost a moratorium on all tribal recognitions. The first time this measure came to a vote, it received support from only 15 senators, two of whom were defeated for re-election. In the mid-90s, he also submitted a bill that would have frozen transfers of land into trust for all tribes in the country.

Even Kerry himself has a potential embarrassment. He is a member of the Yale secret society Skull and Bones (Class of 1966), which has been accused of holding the skull of Apache hero Geronimo and other artifacts from his grave in its neo-Egyptian "tomb" in New Haven. Kerry shares this blemish with Republican President George W. Bush, also a Bonesman.