DETROIT - Howard Dean, winless after nine Democratic contests and with little hope for victory in the states that will vote this weekend, abruptly cut off campaigning in Michigan yesterday and headed for Wisconsin, vowing to win its Feb. 17 primary or quit the race.
"Our true test will be in the Wisconsin primary," Dean - once the front-runner and top fund-raiser in the quest for his party's presidential nomination - wrote in an e-mail sent to supporters yesterday morning. "A win there will carry us to the big states of March 2 and narrow the field to two candidates. Anything less will put us out of the race."
By yesterday afternoon, Dean had scrapped campaign events scheduled for last night and today in Detroit and Ann Arbor to fly to Milwaukee. The e-mail message and Dean's quick departure from Michigan - a delegate-rich state that his campaign once considered a must-win - were the clearest signals yet that the former Vermont governor has staked his embattled candidacy on a victory in Wisconsin.
"All that you have worked for these past months is on the line on a single day, in a single state," Dean told supporters, in an e-mail that contained a desperate plea for campaign contributions to help fund Dean's last stand in Wisconsin. It had yielded $475,000 in contributions by yesterday evening, campaign officials said.
The shift in strategy renders tomorrow's Michigan caucuses, where 128 pledged delegates are at stake in the first large industrial state to cast ballots in the Democratic race, a virtual nonevent.
Sen. John Kerry has an overwhelming lead over Dean and other rivals in statewide polls here, and Southerners John Edwards and Wesley K. Clark have stayed away from Michigan to campaign in Tennessee and Virginia, which vote Feb. 10.
Before abandoning the state, Dean spoke yesterday at a community center in Royal Oak, a Detroit suburb, and harked back to the same grass-roots message that propelled him to the front of the Democratic pack last year, showing flashes of the irascibility that got him into trouble after he lost Iowa, and at other points on the campaign trail.
"On Saturday you have a choice," Dean said, concluding a town hall meeting as supporters rose from their folding chairs, ready to applaud him.
"You can all sit down. I'm not done yet," he told them. "Do you want real change or do you just want to shift the deck? ... You have the power on Saturday to take back our country."
Tracking polls yesterday showed Dean trailing far behind the Massachusetts senator who has emerged as the clear front-runner in this year's Democratic race, after victories in seven states. The other top Democratic contenders, Senator Edwards of North Carolina and Clark, a retired general, each have won one primary.
A Detroit News-Mitchell Research and Communications Inc. poll conducted Feb. 2-4 showed Kerry at 56 percent, with Dean at 9 percent and Edwards at 7 percent.
"We need to win Wisconsin, and we just need to go there right now and compete as hard as we can," said Jay Carson, Dean's spokesman, as aides scrambled to schedule events there yesterday afternoon.
Campaign strategists believe that Dean's grass-roots message and his newly acquired image as an underdog will play well in Wisconsin, a state with a long progressive tradition that matches Dean's message.
"It's a single primary day. It's a state that makes a lot of sense for us. It's a place where we have a lot of support," Carson said. "It begins a two-week swing where roughly 75 percent of delegates are selected. Our goal is to winnow this down to a two-person race, and the best way to do it is starting in Wisconsin."
Yesterday's e-mail message seemed a fitting gamble for a campaign whose striking early success was built on the Internet, which Dean used to organize a broad network of supporters and contributors whose small donations yielded major totals. The appeal for money yesterday was a test of that network.
Dean's supporters "understand what is at stake in November, and because of that, they want an election not a coronation," said his campaign manager, Roy Neel. "We need a real debate in this race."
Still, the announcement may have sapped what little hope was left among Dean's disheartened fans that he could bounce back from his disappointing losses in key states and mount a viable challenge to Kerry.
"There are a lot of people out there who in their hearts are for Dean, but they're confused about all this electability stuff," said Nancy Habig, 51, a volunteer from Jasper, Ind., who traveled to Michigan for the campaign and has been working the phones for Dean.
"The people I talk to see polls showing Kerry up, Dean down. They see a few states that have voted: Kerry up, Dean down. And I think they're jumping ship because they want so bad to beat Bush," Habig said.