What a dreary presidential campaign season this would have been without Howard Dean.
From the start, the former governor and physician from Vermont set the agenda in the Democratic presidential contest and enlivened the political debate. On most issues, his opponents played catch-up to the pesky upstart as he moved to the front of the pack. As a result, except for the Iraq war, there is not that much difference among the candidates these days on key issues. They are largely on the same page on health care, taxes, deficit spending and such hot-button issues as abortion and gay rights.
When New Hampshire voters go to the polls Tuesday in the nation's first presidential primary, they are expected to do what Iowa caucusgoers did the week before _ choose the Democrat they believe has the best chance of defeating President George W. Bush. It's electability, stupid, and Dean is in trouble.
In addition to Dean, the choices are: John Kerry, the Vietnam veteran and senator from Massachusetts; Sen. Joe Lieberman, the most centrist candidate in the race and Al Gore's vice-presidential running mate in 2000; John Edwards, a former trial lawyer from North Carolina serving his first term in the Senate; and Wesley Clark, the retired four-star Army general from Arkansas and former NATO supreme commander. (Also-rans are the Rev. Al Sharpton and congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.)
It probably never occurred to Dean, or to the pundits who all but crowned him the Democratic nominee before the first vote was cast, that in the end this race may be decided less on the issues than on the voters' visceral assessment of each candidate's persona, temperament, judgment, experience and character.
After his crushing third-place finish in Iowa behind Kerry and Edwards, Dean is struggling to regain his footing in New Hampshire. The Massachusetts senator routed Dean in nearly every key voter category _ first-time voters, antiwar voters and young voters. Dean's base collapsed in Iowa and within 24 hours it started showing serious cracks in New Hampshire, where, according to most polls, he is running a distant second.
Almost overnight, Dean went from being the front-runner to being a political joke. The late-night television comedians have feasted on Dean's fist-pumping, top-of-the-lungs concession speech in Iowa, his most unpresidential moment in the campaign.
Now Dean is fighting for his political life in his own backyard. His once commanding lead in New Hampshire has disappeared as Kerry, who absurdly calls himself an "underdog," has roared to the front of the pack.
The morning after the Iowa voting, Dean met with a group of supporters in a hotel ballroom in Manchester. The wounded candidate changed his tone and substance. There was no red meat served up at this campaign rally. He walked slowly toward the lectern instead of charging it, as he once did.
"Those of you who came here intending to be lifted to your feet by a lot of red-meat rhetoric are going to be a little disappointed," he told the audience. "I want to give the kind of speech I gave in Vermont for so many years, a speech about policy."
And that is what he did. He spoke calmly, almost poignantly, about balancing Vermont's state budget 11 years in a row and about the health care coverage he pushed into law. He barely touched on the war in Iraq, and he spoke not a critical word against his opponents.
At campaign stops later in the week, Dean made jokes about his screaming Iowa speech. He also told voters "I've got plenty of warts" and "make a zillion mistakes." But whatever his shortcomings, he said he was no phony. "I'm not blow-dried; I'm not coached. I don't believe in polls," he said.
In some ways, Howard Dean has gotten a bum rap. Contrary to what his critics say, he is no wild-eyed left winger. It is Wesley Clark who received the endorsements of George McGovern, who lost 49 states to Richard Nixon in 1972, and Michael Moore, the ultraleft Hollywood filmmaker and Bush basher. It's also possible that his image as the "angry candidate" stems largely from the intensity and passion he brought to his campaign when he was rallying angry Democrats against President Bush and their party's congressional leadership on the war issue. He sometimes crosses the line in his rhetoric, once referring, for example, to Washington politicians as "cockroaches." But he is not the first presidential candidate to say something he came to regret.
In their final debate before the primary election, the candidates left no blood on the stage. They mostly attacked President Bush and pressed competing claims on their electability. The only elbow Dean threw came when someone mentioned that 500 U.S. soldiers had been killed and more than 2,000 wounded in Iraq so far. "Those soldiers were sent there by the votes of Sen. Kerry and Sen. Lieberman and Sen. Edwards. That is a fact," Dean said pointedly.
Dean must be hoping New Hampshire will remain true to its history of favoring underdogs. Granite State voters can be an ornery lot who take pleasure in toppling front-runners.
Back in his insurgent mode, Dean has vowed to continue his campaign, win or lose in New Hampshire. He has the money and organization to fight on, but at some point he has to start winning primaries. It's hard to say when or where that might happen. After Tuesday's voting, the campaign shifts to South Carolina, Oklahoma and other states where Dean will face an uphill fight.
Like John McCain, the Republican insurgent who defeated George W. Bush in New Hampshire four years ago but lost the nomination battle, Howard Dean may never sit in the Oval Office, but he has secured his place in political history. He has been a force for positive change in the nation's election process. If nothing else, he has shown _ by his use of the Internet to raise a mountain of campaign money in small donations _ that Democrats do not have to be at the mercy of special interests for funds.
If Dean pulls his campaign out of a tailspin and goes on to win the nomination, it will be the greatest resurrection since Lazarus. If he crashes and Democrats go on to recapture the White House in November, he will deserve his share of the credit.