WASHINGTON - When Howard Dean bowed out of the Democratic presidential race, he encouraged his supporters to "fight on" and cast votes for him so a sizable number of Dean delegates could attend and help shape the national convention this summer.
"We are on the ballots," the former Vermont governor said, offering a shred of hope to the heartbroken crowd in his home state. "We are not going away."
It was enough to motivate many of his supporters to continue to wear their Dean buttons, keep their state offices open and campaign on his behalf - even though Dean's days as an active presidential candidate were finished.
But these days, as Dean's enthusiastic partisans search for direction and a place to channel their political passion, many are concerned that if they follow their hearts - and the doctor's orders - and cast a ballot for non-candidate Dean, they will be wasting their votes.
What Dean didn't spell out, but what most of his supporters know, is that to win a single delegate in a primary or caucus, Dean needs to win at least 15 percent of the vote in that state or an individual congressional district.
If he doesn't meet that threshold, he wins no delegates.
Even as an active candidate, Dean was falling short of 15 percent in many of the states with contests Tuesday, polling at about 12 percent in Ohio and 10 percent in New York before he left the race.
In Maryland, once considered a strong Dean state, he was winning the support of only 14 percent of Democrats in early February, when he was still campaigning, according to a Maryland Poll by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies.
In the contests in Hawaii, Utah and Idaho last Tuesday, Dean did not reach the level to win a single delegate.
"There are some who think they can reach 15 percent in a particular district," says Eric Schmeltzer, a former Dean aide in New York who is now supporting John Edwards. "I'm of the mind that it's very unlikely."
In fact, Dean's former campaign manager, Joe Trippi, recently posted a message on his Web site saying he was concerned about the continuing effort to try to elect Dean delegates.
"While I think it is great if people want to pour their efforts into voting for Howard Dean and towards electing as many Dean delegates as possible to the Democratic National Convention, I think people need to understand the reality so that those that make the effort are not disappointed by the outcome," Trippi wrote, sparking hundreds of responses, many of them angry missives from devoted Dean supporters.
Trippi said that Dean would likely get between 3 percent and 8 percent of the vote in coming contests, and thus "little or no chance of electing delegates."
Dean on Thursday in New Haven, his first public appearance since dropping out of the race Feb. 18, said he will unveil plans for a new grass-roots organization in mid-March. He also urged his followers to support the Democratic nominee and resist independent and third-party challengers. "Those of you who want to support another candidate, I encourage that," he said.
Although he did not solicit votes for himself, he has not necessarily backed away from his earlier request, says Dean spokesman Jay Carson.
"A lot of his supporters worked really hard for him and desperately want to vote for him," Carson said. "If they want to, they should."
Edwards, facing an uphill battle against Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in all 10 states with contests Tuesday, has tried to step into the void left by Dean's departure and promote himself as the better alternative.
The North Carolina senator has been publicly and privately wooing both the former candidate and his organization of energetic, Internet-savvy supporters in hopes of making inroads in places such as California and New York where Dean had an active organization.
Wednesday, in a speech on poverty to students in California, Edwards went out of his way to praise Dean, calling him "my friend" and "a powerful voice for change." He told reporters he has spoken with Dean twice since the former governor quit the race and he was actively courting Dean's supporters.
Before he withdrew from the race, Dean said he believed Edwards would make a better nominee than Kerry, but he is unlikely to endorse either candidate at this point. He has said he will support whatever nominee eventually is chosen.
"These people are looking around for a place to go," said Rob Johnson, head of the Edwards campaign in Maryland, of Dean's backers. "Our message to them is we're the new outsiders. Our candidate is saying a lot of the same things that their candidate was saying."
Still, a number of Dean supporters in Maryland and other Super Tuesday states say they will vote their conscience and convictions. They realize Dean is unlikely to get a single delegate, but they don't care.
"It's not a math decision," says Walter Ludwig, Dean's Maryland coordinator. "It's less that they believe they'll get 15 percent of the vote and more that they really admire everything Dean stood for and want to send a statement that they still do."
But, he adds, since Kerry has had a comfortable lead over Edwards, Dean followers can afford to vote their conscience. "Quite bluntly, the calculus would be different if the race looked closer," said Ludwig.
Dean-turned-Edwards supporters are embracing that argument, saying that in states where the race is tighter - such as Ohio, Georgia and Minnesota - Dean's backers could make a difference.
"We still have a chance to affect change," says Schmeltzer, who has created DeaniacsforEdwards.com. "It may not be in electing Dean delegates, but in electing someone who's more in tune with the principles laid out by Dean in his campaign."