Enigmatic northern Democrat surprises old guard
SIX months ago most Americans, and even most Democrats, had barely heard of Howard Dean. But the former governor of Vermont has put the party’s better-known names on the back foot, in the race to be the Democrats’ challenger to George Bush.
Mr Dean is anti-war, anti-taxes, pro-gun, an old Democrat and a "real person", say enthusiastic supporters. The Democrat establishment can’t wait for him to stumble - but even victory in Iraq did not torpedo his grass-roots campaign.
"I would go to the ends of the earth for Howard Dean," Darinda Sharp, a graduate politics student at George Washington University, declared. "When I first saw him on television last year I was amazed by his ability to articulate his vision. In fact, the fact that he has a vision impresses me."
Thousands of other Americans have joined Ms Sharp’s dream of propelling Mr Dean to the White House.
The first primary elections in Iowa and New Hampshire will not be held until next January, but his campaign is picking up invaluable momentum. New Hampshire polls show him running neck and neck with the Massachusetts senator and early front-runner John Kerry, in the state that often picks - or hobbles - a party favourite.
His keynote introduction: "I am Howard Dean and I’m here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic campaign," is pulling support from left-wing activists dissatisfied with the party’s drift to the centre - and, crucially, from an army of volunteers, many of them political novices.
One key to his campaign is the internet. More than 30,000 people have signed at the site meetup.com, which organises monthly meetings of local interest groups, to talk over how they can support the Dean campaign. Meetup members have funnelled close to 200,000 to his race. Online web-logs, or journals, are also used to spread the message.
On Wednesday Mr Dean’s supporters met in Washington and 231 other towns and cities to spread the Dean gospel and, just as importantly, raise money. At the Visions Cinema Bistro, more than 100 Dean backers turned up.
"It’s a fabulous turnout that has comfortably beaten our expectations," said Paul McKenzie, a volunteer activist for the fledgling "DC for Dean" branch of the campaign. This week the actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward hosted a Dean fundraiser in New York.
Mainstream Democrats, however, are fiercely critical of his anti-war stance, saying it weakens the credibility of the party as a whole on national defence and foreign policy.
Last month the "new Democrat" Democratic Leadership Council warned he was a "liberal elitist" in the mould of George McGovern or Walter Mondale, candidates who failed miserably in past attempts on the White House.
Some party officials hoped victory in Iraq would knock his campaign off course; if anything he appears stronger. "Their problem is that we’re not disappearing," says his campaign manager, Joe Trippi.
Now Saddam Hussein has been toppled - something the candidate insists he welcomes - Mr Dean wants first NATO, then United Nations involvement in Iraq, and expects them to be there ten years.
He has scorned Democrat rivals as no better than "Bush lite". That stinging accusation has brought fierce counter-attacks, particularly from Senator Kerry.
"Dean is a real person," says Mr Trippi. "There are four or five programmed candidates and we don’t need another one."
Mr Dean, a doctor before he was elected in 1991 to the first of five terms as Vermont governor, draws most of his support from the left. He cut taxes in Vermont, however, and argued for balanced budgets. He opposed gun control laws, winning an endorsement from the National Rifle Association.
"You can’t define him," says Mr Trippi.
"As the primary season gets going, the field will narrow and people will get to know him better. The more people do that, the more they like him. That’s unusual," says Ms Sharp, who helps to run fundraising house parties for the Dean campaign.
Mr Dean’s backers are fond of reminding anyone who will listen that Bill Clinton was seen as an equally unlikely president.
Like Mr Dean, Mr Clinton was, in Arkansas, the governor of a small, rural state.
Unlike Mr Dean, however, he hailed from the south. No northern Democrat has won the US presidency since John F Kennedy in 1960.
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