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Dean goes from bulldog to underdog

In 2003, Howard Dean's rise set the tone for the Democratic presidential race. Now his decline is reshaping the race in 2004.

Dean's meteoric ascent encouraged all of his rivals to try to match the anger and passion he brought to the campaign. For months, racing after Dean, the other Democratic contenders jostled to see who could express the most contempt for President Bush.

At times, the race seemed above all a competition to see which candidate could stuff the most adjectives into a single sentence vilifying Bush. Dean led the field in part because almost all of the other candidates were trying to be like him, and none of the imitations matched the fervor of the original.

But a funny thing happened as the actual voting approached: The anger that exhilarated so many of the hard-core activists who dominated the process in 2003 is proving much less attractive to the broader universe of Democratic voters now checking into the contest in 2004.

Suddenly the dominant voice in the race belongs to voters like Jeannine Tucker, a retired life insurance company employee from Goffstown, who initially intended to support Dean but is now considering Sens. John F. Kerry and John Edwards and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark.

"One time I went to see Dean and he was right on in what he said," she said last week, while waiting for Kerry to speak at a rally in Manchester. "Now after the couple of little missteps in what he's saying, and losing his temper, I'm not too sure. . . . As president, you've got to have somebody who's stable. This is a very precarious job."

Tucker's comment, echoed by other voters here, may offer the key to the upheaval that has transformed Dean from front-runner into embattled underdog.

Part of Dean's problem is that he alienated some Democratic voters when he shifted his fire from the president toward other Democrats. If Dean doesn't stop his tailspin, his decision to run a television ad just before the Iowa caucuses attacking three of his rivals for supporting the Iraq war could stand as one of the great tactical mistakes in recent nomination history.

But Dean's larger problem may be that voters appear to have shifted the standard they are using to judge the candidates. In 2003, the activists driving the process were evaluating the contenders mostly as potential nominees. But the larger group of voters now participating looks to be assessing them more as potential presidents.

Dean did great on the first measure. The one thing that unifies virtually all Democratic voters is hostility toward Bush's agenda. And many Democrats thrilled to the thought of Dean, all bulldog intensity, baring his teeth to Bush in debate. Dean offered Democrats the catharsis of saying in public what they said in private.

But Dean isn't doing nearly so well as voters increasingly compare the contenders as potential presidents. The trip-wire intensity that seemed so compelling in a potential nominee looks much more risky in a possible president _ especially after Dean offered an unsettling symbol of his volatility with his frenzied concession speech in Iowa.

Dean's hard-core supporters have forgiven his succession of inflammatory statements (on everything from the capture of Saddam Hussein to the legacy of President Clinton) because they perceive him as a candid straight-shooter. But his sharp tongue has hurt him more with the broader pool of voters because most Americans want a president who aims before he fires, whether he shoots straight or not.

In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll last week, only half of Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire said Dean has "the kind of personality a president should have." At least three-quarters of voters said Kerry, Clark and Edwards each met that test.

Dean's appearance of instability has encouraged many voters to place a higher premium on steadiness, experience, and judgment. As Michelle O'Rourke, an independent and a homemaker from Bedford, put it at a Kerry rally last week: "If you're going to vote a president out of office, you have to be certain the person you're voting for has the experience and credibility to do the job."

This shift in focus has most immediately benefited Kerry. Even while leading in the New Hampshire polls, Kerry inspires respect more than passion. But with Dean igniting so many explosions, Kerry's steadiness now looks to many voters less like dullness than dependability.

Edwards is benefiting from the second major tremor set off by Dean's slide. Edwards recognized, before his rivals, that Democrats were wearying of the internecine warfare that Dean launched early last year by denouncing his opponents and the Washington Democratic leadership as "Bush-lite." Even if the truce over issues that has prevailed for most of the past week in New Hampshire can't last indefinitely, it's likely that almost all of the contenders _ with Dean a possible exception _ will pursue their future differences more respectfully than before Iowa.

All of this doesn't mean Dean is doomed if he loses today; he still has a loyal base and Kerry's ability to connect with voters remains uneven. As in Iowa, Edwards is thrilling large audiences here; but he still faces hesitation about his experience. Clark is reassuring to some, unpredictable and too tightly wound for others. Sen. Joe Lieberman, while stirring in some polls, still seems to be offering more bipartisan accommodation than most Democrats this year want.

Yet, at a time when American politics appears increasingly polarized, the most reassuring aspect of the campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire is that most Democratic voters are clearly looking for more than the candidate who will bark at Bush the loudest. The distaste for Bush among rank-and-file Democrats isn't diminishing; but the realization that a president needs deeper virtues than anger is growing.

Ronald Brownstein covers politics for the Los Angeles Times.

Los Angeles Times