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Prolonging the agony


MILWAUKEE - As Sen. John Kerry was adding Tennessee and Virginia to his primary victory string the other night, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was continuing to deliver his high-decibel attack on "Washington Democrats" before cheering Wisconsin supporters here.

Tuesday's primary, he told them, will determine "whether Wisconsin wants to be a rubber stamp for the rest of the country" and let "insiders from Washington [Mr. Kerry and President Bush] face each other in the presidential election."

Dr. Dean continued in that vein, referring to Mr. Kerry as "somebody who's been in the Senate forever, who's taken an awful lot of insiders' special interest money," as opposed to himself, who owed "nobody anything, except you." It is, he went on, time to reject "those Washington Democrats who stood with the president when they went to war in Iraq."

Even though his losing streak in the fight for the Democratic nomination was being extended to 14 states as he spoke, Dr. Dean's pitch was unchanged from the pre-Iowa caucus days when he was the party's front-runner. At a time when yet another contender, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, was dropping out, Dr. Dean was telling these Wisconsin voters he was still going to be the next president.

"This has been a terrific campaign," he concluded, "and when we win on Tuesday, this will be a terrific administration. We will continue to fight for a better America and to fight and to fight, and we will never, ever quit. Ever."

As the crowd filed out, loyal workers continued to collect sign-up forms from die-hard Dean backers. "Any yellow forms?" one worker asked, rather forlornly. "I'd love to have them." He got few.

Outside, I asked Nat Huot, 21, of Laconia, N.H., who is taking a semester off from Georgetown University in Washington, why he was persevering. "I'm inspired by the candidate," he said. "He's willing to do what all great Democrats should be doing."

Dr. Dean said last week that Wisconsin would be his last stand if he lost, but he subsequently indicated he would persevere. After the speech, I sat backstage with him and asked about his post-Wisconsin intentions.

Citing "enormous numbers of supporters" who told him they "really want to have a voice in the Democratic Party," Dr. Dean replied, "I'm not inclined to drop out, but I'm not sure what we're going to do. ... I can tell you what I'm not going to do. We're not going to have a quixotic campaign that can't win, to cripple the front-runner. I'm not going to do that."

At the same time, he suggested, voters in the majority of states that have not yet had a chance to express their preferences should have that opportunity. "The nomination is by no means locked up," he insisted, in the face of the conventional wisdom built on Mr. Kerry's string of victories.

Looking past the March 2 Super Tuesday, when 13 states, including Maryland, will vote, Dr. Dean noted that Florida holds its primary a week later. "I'd hate to deprive Florida of the vote for a second presidential election in a row," he said, alluding to the 2000 vote there.

If Dr. Dean loses again in Wisconsin, the pressure no doubt will mount on him to step aside on grounds that continuing would only risk further intraparty division and delay a more coordinated focus on President Bush as the party's target.

The "front-loading" process - bunching a majority of the state delegate-selecting elections in a few weeks early on the political calendar - is intended to achieve that end. Dr. Dean said he thought that process has "been a mistake, though we certainly were willing to take advantage of it" (by trying to lock up the nomination early).

"The problem," he said, "is Kerry hasn't been vetted the way I was vetted, and that may reveal some things that [people] didn't know about." Dr. Dean said the phenomenon of "buyer's remorse" - concern about a product already bought - "is exactly what I worry about."

Nevertheless, he said, "as difficult as it is, it's important to go through the really tough process." More than a week between primaries, he said, "would give voters a better chance to look."

As for himself, Dr. Dean said, "Fighting the momentum [of a front-runner such as Mr. Kerry] is awfully tough, but on the other hand, all the other candidates had to fight my momentum when I had it. It's like swimming against a tidal wave. You just have to keep going. ... But all of us were in the same position. You can't particularly say the rules were unfair because we all abided by the same rules.

"The only way we'll find out if the process is a good one will be if we [the Democrats] win. Then we'll go back and say, yes, the process was a good one. If we don't win, then there'll be a lot of gnashing of teeth."

Asked what he thought about the importance of picking the nominee early, the rationale for the front-loading process that may have contributed to his faded fortunes, Dr. Dean replied: "I think it's important to pick the right nominee early, and only time will tell if we do that."

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

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