Can Dean recover?

MANCHESTER, N.H. — MANCHESTER, N.H. - Two days after Howard Dean's bizarre flight of irrational exuberance on Iowa caucus night, the former Vermont governor made a soft landing back on Planet Earth at a meeting here with New Hampshire campaign staffers and volunteers.

In sharp contrast to his Iowa tirade in the wake of his surprisingly weak third-place finish behind Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards, Dr. Dean was subdued in addressing his supporters. They seemed more than willing to accept his explanation that "there were 3,500 people there who worked in Iowa for weeks, and I thought I owed them."


Dr. Dean's caucus night screaming recital of all the states where other Democratic contests are on the calendar may have been intended to convince his followers that he had just begun to fight. But it was seized upon and replayed by radio and television talk-show hosts who questioned whether Dr. Dean had gone off the deep end, showing himself to be too unstable for the presidency.

"I think he was really excited, and I think he wanted to rally the troops there," said a Dean volunteer, Susan Jackson-Rafter of Nottingham, N.H. "I think he just didn't want to look too disappointed. Iowa was only one state, one caucus."


Well, was his outburst going to be a problem for him here in New Hampshire? "Oh, I think the Republicans will try to make it a problem," she said. "But I think that we need somebody who has some passion. The other candidates don't really have a lot of passion, and this guy is not afraid to show it."

Her expectation that the Republicans would try to exploit Dr. Dean's startling display was borne out in an editorial in the ultraconservative Manchester Union Leader, which said:

"Howard Dean does not have the temperament to be president of the United States. He is a simmering volcano of uncontainable rage. We probably witnessed a mere echo of that anger Monday night. If placing third in the Iowa caucuses produced that shocking a response, imagine how he might react to a foreign diplomat or head of state who publicly challenges him. Imagine how disastrous would be his relations with Congress."

Dr. Dean's fighting concession speech was not the only sour note struck on caucus night. Although he finished a most disappointing third in Iowa, he came out wearing a huge grin amid much cheering, hugging and backslapping, customarily reserved for a winner. He weakly noted that a year earlier, no one would have suggested he would finish third there, so it was a cause for celebration. But it was only putting up a transparent false front.

The polls in New Hampshire will be watched closely between now and Tuesday's primary for signs of Dr. Dean's fate in another state where his campaign has mounted a huge army of canvassers. But the Dean hordes in Iowa couldn't make up for the shortcomings of their candidate, as exposed in the results there and afterward by his behavior, which has seriously expanded doubts about his temperament and, hence, his electability.

For many Democrats here as in Iowa, the latter issue is paramount. At a John Edwards appearance at a small restaurant in Nashua, Sue Newman, a real estate dealer, said she had been "a Dean person until the Iowa thing finished. Maybe the people in Iowa know something different. For some reason they had a gut reaction and put Kerry and Edwards first."

Ms. Newman said she felt at first that Dr. Dean "articulated all of our frustration. ... However, the manner that he did it, I was sensing that people were getting irritated. A lady I worked with said she was concerned about this angry aspect that he had." Friends began calling him "a loose cannon, wild, angry, that he wouldn't be able to get the nomination," she said. "They were concerned he would just blow it. And I want to know I will be getting someone who will go up against George Bush."

Ms. Newman said she was now considering Mr. Edwards, whose relative inexperience in politics and youthful appearance (at age 50) raise the same electability question. It is one that may have made Mr. Kerry the winner in Iowa, and the Massachusetts senator is pushing it hard now with his New Hampshire neighbors, who only weeks ago seemed ready to forsake him.


Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.