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Dean strategy keeps his rivals off balance

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Senator John F. Kerry knew it could be one of the biggest arrows in his preprimary quiver, so he spent months courting Jeanne Shaheen to be his national campaign chairwoman, eager to tap the former New Hampshire governor's popularity and political skills both in her early-voting home state and before audiences across the country.

So what day did the Massachusetts Democrat decide to let fly with his announcement and stand in the spotlight with his prize catch? Unfortunately, he chose Sept. 23, the day Howard Dean invaded Boston for a "Beantown is Deantown" rally attended by 2,500 people at Copley Square.

The Boston rally is but one example of how Dean's campaign has been able to overshadow moves by Kerry's time and again, making deft use of the political process to build momentum for the former Vermont governor.

By upstaging Kerry and the rest of the field vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, Dean has kept his rivals off balance for most of the year, forcing them to react to him instead of setting the primary agenda themselves. That has been true even when the news is bad, such as the backlash over Dean's recent comments about the Confederate flag.

And by cultivating what campaign insiders call "process stories" -- Internet fund-raising, grass-roots meetings through, a poll of supporters last week about whether to forgo federal primary funding -- Dean has been able to build on early momentum from his opposition to the Iraq war and assume the role of front-runner. "Dean's success seems to be a combination of a strong outsider's appeal and really savvy organization, and their work on the Internet has been the best example of that," said Democratic political consultant Doug Hattaway, who was a spokesman for former vice president Al Gore and is not aligned with any candidate. "Everybody in past cycles has given lip service to using the Internet. The Dean team has understood how to use the Internet better than anybody else in the field or anybody in politics at this level up to now."

Regardless of the race, all political campaigns must reach out to voters. Dean has revolutionized the use of websites to gather supporters. A recent campaign news release touted another angle of the same story, his success in visiting all 99 counties in Iowa, the first caucus state.

All political campaigns also must raise money. In the three-month period ending Sept. 30, Dean raised $14.8 million, the most in a quarter by any Democratic presidential candidate. That sum included $7.4 million raised over the Internet. A campaign news release said Dean had received 111,000 Internet contributions from nearly 85,000 supporters, for an average donation of $61.14, another hint at Dean's base of support.

In addition, all political campaigns must identify potential supporters and get them to the polls on Election Day. Last month, the Dean campaign gathered about 2,000 New Hampshire residents at 12 sites for what it termed regional organizing conventions. The agenda was dominated by plans for politicking in the final three months of the primary campaign. "We anticipate that this will be the largest meeting of organizers in the history of New Hampshire presidential politics," Karen Hicks, Dean's state campaign director, said in a news release.

Steve Grossman, a longtime Democratic activist in Massachusetts who is Dean's national campaign chairman, said the campaign has found success by creating a new paradigm in politics. While traditional campaigns such as Kerry's have a pyramid-shaped structure running from the campaign manager on down, Dean's campaign is more comparable to concentric circles, with independent spheres across the country overlapping with Dean and the senior staff at headquarters in Burlington, Vt.

"I don't think we ever, at least in my experience, consciously thought of what we could do to upstage the other candidates," Grossman said. "I think it has been much more about what people see as an obvious electricity and passion between the candidate and people who have never really been involved in politics before."

Glen Johnson can be reached at

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