Why Dean Isn't Going Away

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I want a balanced budget," Howard Dean said, and the crowd at the Larkspur Ferry Terminal roared. "Imagine that!" Dean continued with a smile. "Here we are in Marin County, the last bastion of liberalism, hooting and hollering for a balanced budget." But the crowd wasn't really cheering for balanced books; it was hooting and hollering for Dean himself, who could come out foursquare for a healthy balanced diet and his supporters would find it deliriously rebellious. By recent Dean standards, the Larkspur assemblage — several hundred people — was meager. He's been greeted by 3,000 in Austin, Texas, and 1,000 in Seattle. But the very notion of unaffiliated civilians gathering to hear a candidate is increasingly rare in American politics, and the former Governor of Vermont has emerged as the one Democrat who can draw a crowd.

We are now little more than six months away from the primaries. The real campaign will probably begin on Labor Day, but the Democratic field seems to have organized itself into three tiers. The bottom tier is the vanity candidacies: Al Sharpton, Dennis Kucinich, Carol Moseley Braun. The middle tier is serious candidates who have yet to catch fire: Joe Lieberman (despite high name recognition in the polls), John Edwards (despite financial support from his fellow trial lawyers and some creative speeches about specific issues) and Bob Graham. At the top are John Kerry, the party establishment's favorite; Dick Gephardt, the Midwest labor candidate. And Howard Dean.

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In a year in which just about every Democrat running has claimed that he wants to be the reincarnation of John McCain, Dean has won the Straight Talk primary. He did it early on, by opposing the war in Iraq — and by speaking in clear, lean, unmuffled English. And he did it by attacking the other candidates, usually by inference, sometimes by name. As a result, his rivals despise him — a cause for glee in the Dean camp. "I didn't understand the impact that the line 'I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party' would have," Dean told me last week, referring to his use of Paul Wellstone's famous formulation. "I wasn't aware of the huge anger out there among Democrats — anger at Bush, but also against the Democrats in Washington who weren't willing to stand up against the right wing of the Republican Party."

There is some irony here: Dean hasn't been nearly as detailed or creative — or even as courageous — in his position taking as some of the other Democratic candidates have been. He had to hastily revise his health-care plan because it wasn't as detailed as Kerry's regarding cost-containment measures. His knowledge about many issues, even domestic ones, is sketchy at best. He once told me that the school-voucher movement was Southern, white and conservative, even though it is predominantly Northern, urban and African American. He isn't above political opportunism of the basest sort — he has changed his position on free trade to suit Iowa's protectionist labor skates, and a cynic might argue that his position on Iraq was a clever response to a market void. But Dean is a master of the snappy formulation. He tells audiences, for example, that the President's tax cuts will "raise local property taxes and reduce services." This has the virtue of being accurate — there will be less money to cities and towns — and accessible.

In any case, Dean has unlocked a fairly new and vibrant Democratic constituency that transcends his left-wing peacenik stereotype. It is young, middle class, white and wired. Standing on the aft deck of the ferry from San Francisco to Marin County, the Governor was approached by a stream of computer geeks: a woman named Lisa Rein, who has a weblog; a man named Eric Predoehli, who has a website; as well as several people from among the 35,000--astonishing if true — who had joined the Dean affinity group on Meetup.com. Dean seemed nonplussed by it all. "I have no idea how any of this works," he said. "But the Meetup folks are the core of our organization out here in California. In New York, they're working to get us on the primary ballot, which is not an easy thing. This campaign is totally decentralized. There are probably 15 or 20 different kinds of Dean bumper stickers, because people in different states decide to print their own."

Dean has no idea how large this constituency is, but he knows it isn't large enough to win the nomination. "It's time to shift gears," he told me, "to become a more presidential candidate with an inclusive vision, not just a bomb thrower." The official announcement of his candidacy this week was to signal that change. And the broader vision? "We've lost our sense of community," he told me. Not exactly a new theme. The Governor road-tested "community" at the Larkspur rally, and it wasn't nearly as much fun as the bomb throwing. And not nearly so easy. If Dean wants the nomination — still a long shot, but not an impossibility — he will have to be as convincing a statesman as he is a scourge.