The man who made it good for John Kerry

IT WAS in Concord, New Hampshire, that I realised that Howard Dean’s campaign for the presidency was doomed. Any hope he had of regaining the momentum he had lost in the final days of the Iowa caucuses, to say nothing of recovering from his now infamous "scream speech" that cold January night, was doomed by his own supporters.

Door-to door-canvassers sporting "Druids for Dean" badges were unlikely to convince sturdily independent New Hampshire voters that Mr Dean was a viable presidential candidate. The game was up, and there was something strangely sad about seeing a campaign unravel before your eyes.

Still, it’s only seven months ago that Howard Dean seemed to be the man most likely to win the Democratic nomination. Next week, he won’t even be speaking in prime-time at the Democratic convention in Boston. How the mighty are indeed fallen.

The Dean phenomenon already seems like ancient history. His campaign was a fire that blazed brightly but all too briefly, and many Democrats now feel a kind of cringing embarrassment when they contemplate their adolescent flirtation with the former governor of Vermont. The prevailing sentiment is "There but for the grace of God ..." The Dean campaign is now dismissed as a youthful infatuation. But it was more significant than that.

Notwithstanding mainstream Democrats’ relief (and Republicans’ disappointment) that Mr Dean failed to attract votes as successfully as he raised money, it would be wrong to write him out of the history books. For he has still had a considerable impact on this year’s election. The Washington Post reported yesterday that, for the first time, Democrats have raised more money than their Republican opponents. Since the New Year, Democrats have raked in a startling $292 million compared with the trifling $272 million raised by the GOP.

Much of this, of course, can be accounted for by the remarkable level of antipathy Democrats feel for Mr Bush. But it is also part of Mr Dean’s legacy. It was Dean who first articulated the liberal anger that has given John Kerry the advantage of a Democratic party more united than at any time in living memory. It was Mr Dean who first made it acceptable, at a time when Mr Bush was still riding high in the polls, to oppose the war in Iraq and to say: "Enough is enough."

Whatever else one may think about Mr Dean, he displayed a kind of courage in arguing that the capture of Saddam had not made America a safer place. Most Democrats still agree with that view, even if only Mr Dean was prepared at the time to actually say so. Indeed, a characteristic of Dean’s campaign was that initially it promised to tear up the conventional wisdom in Washington as Dean campaigned with the refreshing idealism - even naivety - that only the true outsider can contemplate. This involved taking risks, and was the polar opposite of Mr Kerry’s excruciatingly-parsed positions on any subject that might prove in the least bit controversial or divisive.

It was the Dean campaign that first unlocked the internet’s fund-raising potential. Now that everyone uses the internet to raise money, this seems routine, but it wasn’t a year ago when the Dean campaign began to take off as it slipped under the national media’s radar. The Kerry campaign has learnt from Dean’s example and, like Dean, holds regular "house parties" across the country that raise funds from thousands of ordinary voters, many of whom have never previously been politically active. These parties, normally addressed via conference-call by the candidate himself, act as a means by which the campaign’s grassroots can be watered, forging a "citizens’ army" determined to do whatever it takes to defeat Mr Bush.

Equally, by becoming the first Democrat in history to opt out of accepting public funds, Mr Dean showed that the Republicans need not have a permanent and institutionalised fund-raising advantage.

As Mr Dean put it recently, his campaign both profited from and was harmed by Democrats’ anger. "The most effective argument they [the Kerry campaign] made is that I was unelectable. And there was nothing the Democrats wanted more than to win."

Before the Dean campaign’s rise, however, Democrats were cowed, directionless and in despair. Mr Bush seemed unbeatable, and while the party establishment in Washington despaired at the electoral consequences of a Dean victory in the primaries, the rank-and-file were relieved to find someone, anyone, who could sound as though he was serious about beating Mr Bush.

Even if true believers acknowledged that victory in November might still be an unlikely proposition, Mr Dean seemed to promise at least defeat with dignity. That, it turns out, was the necessary first step on the road to the Democrats’ recovery. From dignity came hope. From hope has come (whisper it quietly) expectation.

Mr Dean’s campaign had another fortunate consequence for the Democrats. His success forced Mr Kerry to sharpen his act. For the first six months of last year, Mr Kerry was the presumptive favourite. He was coasting, however, and caught by surprise by the rise of the Deaniacs. If Mr Kerry does not always seem the most compelling or exciting candidate today, it is worth pondering just how dreadful he might be had he not been forced to sharpen his act and reorganise his campaign last autumn. It was Mr Dean who, by default, made Mr Kerry become a better, stronger, more plausible candidate.

When Mr Dean’s youthful supporters promised they would, as many told me, "go to the ends of the earth for the Doctor", they displayed a passion for their candidate that Mr Kerry has never been able to generate among all but the staunchest of his supporters. Nonetheless, Mr Kerry’s campaign learnt its lesson and began to appropriate aspects of Mr Dean’s message for itself.

As Mr Dean told the Washington Post’s EJ Dionne last week, "I don’t mind that [other] people took the message. I really think that was good for the Democratic Party, and that it is essential to beating George Bush".

As a result, Mr Kerry has the backing of a party that has never been as united as it is this summer.

Mr Dean has made his peace with the party that so bluntly rejected him. But though he will not feature prominently in Boston, his legacy also lives on in another way. He now heads a political action committee, grandiosely entitled "Democracy in America", that raises funds for Democrat campaigns across the country. It is local work, much of it unseen by the national media, that still gives Mr Dean and his army of supporters the chance to select and elect a new generation of "fiscally conservative, socially progressive" Democrat politicians.

So, John Kerry will feast upon the Democrats’ adulation when he formally accepts the party’s nomination. But the table for his triumph was set by Howard Dean who, though gone, should not be forgotten.

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