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Winless Dean quits race for White House

ElectionsDemocratic PartyExecutive BranchGovernmentTelevision

WASHINGTON - Howard Dean, once touted as the man most likely to succeed in the Democratic presidential race, folded his campaign yesterday after failing to win a single state.

"I am no longer a candidate," Dean told flag-waving supporters in his hometown of Burlington, Vt., where he returned after a weak third-place finish in the Wisconsin primary.

Dean said he would convert his campaign organization into a "grass-roots network" to change his party and the country.

He promised to support the Democratic ticket in the race against President Bush. But he also delivered a warning that hinted at prickly relations with the eventual nominee.

"Let me be clear. I will not run as an independent or a third-party candidate," Dean said. "But we will not be above ... letting our nominee know that we expect [him] to adhere to the standards that this organization has set for decency, honesty, integrity and standing up for ordinary American working people."

Dean's hoarse voice, and the cough that punctuated his speech, reflected the strains of the past month, when his chances of winning the nomination vaporized so fast that it was hard to believe they ever existed.

For much of the past six months Dean had appeared unstoppable. Many politicians had concluded that the former Vermont governor was on his way to the Democratic nomination. His party's 2000 presidential contenders, Al Gore and Bill Bradley, had endorsed him. Savvy Republicans, including Karl Rove, the top White House strategist, figured it would be a Bush-Dean race in the fall, as did many commentators.

Those expectations, which put Dean's face on magazine covers and national television, magnified his breathtaking fall. His collapse, so soon after his remarkable rise from obscurity, became a riveting spectacle.

In successfully linking his angry, insurgent message to the power of the Internet, Dean brought presidential politics into the Wired Age in a meaningful way for the first time.

By using online connections to build an army of small donors, he showed Democrats how to compete against deeper-pocketed Republicans in a post-soft money world. Along the way, he set a party fund-raising record. He also became the first Democrat to lose the nomination after out-raising his rivals in the year before the election.

Dean's emergence as a national figure was triggered by his full-throated challenge to the Washington establishment. He cast himself as the voice of the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" and quickly got the attention of insiders.

But it was his outspoken opposition to Bush's decision to take the country to war in Iraq - and his harsh criticism of rivals who voted for the war resolution, including Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards - that put Dean into the lead in the polls and the race for campaign cash.

A physician by training, he had started out to make universal health care the centerpiece of his campaign. "I had no idea this would happen," Dean told a reporter a year ago, after his antiwar stance had begun to create ripples among party activists strongly opposed to the war.

His anti-establishment image, and cultivated reputation for unvarnished talk, helped draw a legion of younger voters into politics. It also revived the activism of others from Dean's baby-boom generation, who had retreated to the civic sidelines.

That made his defeat at the hands of Kerry, a member of the party establishment, particularly hard to take. In recent weeks, Dean has not concealed his bitterness toward Washington, Democratic Party leaders and the national news media.

In his withdrawal speech, he sought to put his campaign's failure into the context of a wider social battle, noting the "enormous institutional resistance to change in this country." And he took unconcealed delight in telling supporters that his campaign had "literally terrified people, sitting in their salons in Georgetown, that they might actually have to look for work if we won."

Dean neglected to mention how, for months, he'd been recruiting a wide range of established Democratic experts in Washington as advisers. He also did not refer to his endorsement by establishment figures, such as Gore, whose backing served to blur his outsider image in the minds of Democratic voters.

According to some in his camp, the Dean campaign ultimately failed because of his inability to grow as a candidate. He was unable to make a successful shift from insurgent to front-runner, and in a way that would make voters comfortable with the idea of him as president. Instead, voters became increasingly focused on doubts about Dean's temperament. The role he carved out for himself as the voice of angry Democrats prevented him from convincing voters that he had the steadiness to lead the country in the new age of terror.

In interviews, Dean advisers traced the start of his downfall to last fall, days before he secured the endorsement of two powerful labor unions, in retrospect the high point of his campaign. Yesterday, Dean thanked the labor leaders who stuck with him, "when others abandoned us," a reference to AFSCME, the public employees union that deserted him this month once his campaign began to fail.

A carelessly worded remark at the end of October about wanting to be the candidate "for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks" became Dean's first major struggle with self-inflicted damage. That was followed by an ill-advised comment in mid-December after the capture of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, which, Dean said, had not made Americans any safer.

Almost overnight, his poll numbers plunged. Suddenly, the anti-war views and straight talk that had propelled him to the front of the pack became a liability.

Recently, Dean told a television interviewer that there was some truth to a journalist's observation that his campaign "was so much about message that I forgot that it has to be about me, too, that people have to like you if they want to make you president of the United States."

Dean also indicated that he wished, in retrospect, that his quiet-spoken wife, Dr. Judith Steinberg, had started campaigning with him earlier, as a way of softening his image. Yesterday, he praised her for "finally, after 12 years," making her debut as a campaigner.

He thanked her for "promoting the debate that's needed to happen in this country for a long time, about whether a [candidate's wife] needs to gaze adoringly at her husband or follow her own career."

An alternative theory to the explanation that voters didn't get to know Dean personally is that they may have known him too well. He never recovered from losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, the states where he spent the most time. For two years, he campaigned there as if he were running for governor, meeting and talking with thousands of voters.

The concerns about Dean's temperament that worried voters became deeper last month. Eight days before Iowa's caucuses, Dean sharply rebuked a 66-year-old retiree who confronted him at a campaign forum, barking, "You sit down." A video clip of the confrontation was replayed for days on local newscasts in the state.

A 4-year-old videotape of Dean denigrating the caucus process also surfaced in the final week. That, too, was run repeatedly on Iowa's television news.

Then Dean delivered his caucus night "scream," which was recycled and mocked endlessly from coast to coast, killing any hope that he might bounce back.

By that point, the campaign, with Dean's approval, had burned through more than $40 million at a furious pace. In hindsight, aides said, the money could have been spent more wisely. In particular, they noted, the negative TV ad war between Dean and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt in Iowa had helped ensure their mutual self-destruction.

Dean later called his strategy "an enormous gamble" that flopped. But he and others have noted that the plan itself was sound. Kerry wound up doing exactly what Dean had intended: winning Iowa and New Hampshire and generating an irresistible wave of momentum that is likely to lift him to the nomination.

Though his candidacy failed, much of Dean's message, and his tactics, were adopted by Democratic opponents. Kerry's "whole campaign was borrowed from me," Dean said recently, after the Massachusetts senator had made powerful "special interests" a major target.

Supporters cheered as Dean boasted yesterday that he had "demonstrated to the other Democrats that it is a far better strategy to stand up against the right-wing agenda of George W. Bush than to cooperate with it."

He admonished his younger fans that "change is hard work" and "does not happen simply because you go to a rally." He pledged that, through his new organization, he will "continue to fight," rallying support and donations for other candidates and working to change the party.

Dean's long-shot try for the presidency began with the candidate and a single aide, traveling a lonely circuit for months in search of audiences that would hear him out. He finished with a national following in the hundreds of thousands, many of whom will likely stick with him for some time.

But his connections to the centers of power in his party seem more tenuous than ever. Negotiations over the extent of his cooperation with the nominee, and how far he can or will go to raise money for the ticket, could take weeks and probably won't be easy.

His tone, as he quit the race, was hardly conciliatory, and he never mentioned any of his opponents. Dean may have wound up more of a maverick than when he started, if his stubborn remark on Meet the Press this month is any indication.

"I don't owe anybody anything," he said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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