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As pace setter, Dean finds success has a pull of its own

IOWA CITY -- In the nine-way hurly-burly of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Howard Dean increasingly appears to enjoy that elusive, coveted, and fickle political asset: momentum.

The evolution of Dean from breakout candidate to mainline leader was evident in early fall. But it appears to have solidified with two major union endorsements, continued strength in polls in early-voting states, and his decision to forgo federal matching funds, making Dean the first Democratic presidential candidate ever to do so and positioning him to outspend his eight rivals by millions because he is freed from spending caps.

"Howard Dean is the Great Britain of the 19th century," said Ralph Whitehead, a journalism professor who analyzes politics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "What he has to do now is make sure that no single power emerges to rival him."

The task is made easier by Dean's growing aura of success, which has helped dispel concerns about his ability to win the general election and has fostered a bandwagon effect.

In Boston, home turf of rival Senator John F. Kerry, Suffolk County Register of Probate Richard Iannella yesterday publicly threw his support behind Dean. Here in Iowa, unaligned Democratic activists were scrambling, wondering whether they were too late to sign on before the Jan. 19 caucuses, the first in the nation.

Some abruptly reversed course. "He seemed more electable," said Ellen Widiss, whose daughter is a Dean staffer but who herself leaned toward Kerry until this week. "My early reservations with Dean were that we were asking for another McGovern fiasco," she said, referring to the anti-Vietnam War candidate who rallied primary voters but lost to Richard Nixon in 1972. "The union endorsements were important to me because of what they say about his electability -- that blue-collar workers understand his message and are willing to back him."

Dean also has continued to woo support among some of his biggest fans: college students. Yesterday, he proposed a plan to provide college students with $10,000 a year in federal financial aid as part of his $7.1 billion higher education program.

But for all the campaign's seemingly upward motion, there are new challenges. As a front-runner, Dean is now the man to bring down, and scrutiny of the former Vermont governor will only intensify. With just over two months remaining until the first delegate selection, there is plenty of opportunity for derailment by a gaffe that proves less forgivable than others he has weathered, such as his suggestion that the Democratic Party reach out to men with the Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.

Dean later acknowledged the pain caused by the comment, for which he apologized, helping to dampen chatter about it, although mock campaign posters dotted the Dartmouth College campus where Dean spoke yesterday, marked with Confederate flags.

"Is he going to be attacked more because he's in the lead? Absolutely," said William Mayer, a political science professor at Northeastern University who has studied the presidential nominating process. "But it's still better to be a front-runner than not a front-runner."

A concern more unique to the Dean campaign is how a bigger and more powerful organization will affect an effort that has won supporters by making them feel a part of the campaign. That inclusiveness has been fostered primarily through the Internet, with e-mailed suggestions incorporated into Dean's strategic plans and campaign workers promptly responding to supporters.

As the campaign's expands -- propelled by the addition of thousands of union workers -- the campaign's identity is apt to change, with its cozy intimacy, so prized by Dean supporters, more difficult to maintain.

Indeed at an event last week in Nashua, a supporter approached Dean with just such concerns. "If you send an e-mail, with the huge number of volunteers who are new and don't know as much about the campaign, you aren't getting as much feedback," Ofer Inbar said. "It's not that he's turning people off as much as not turning new people on as much as he could."

For its part, the Dean campaign is only too happy to brush aside the front-runner label, insisting that the campaign is taking pains not to underestimate its rivals -- particularly Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri -- even as it increasingly frames the battle as one between Dean and President Bush. "The jury is still out on this one," said Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager.

Trippi said the campaign plans to stay its course, expanding outreach efforts to bring in 2 million $100 donations, the amount the campaign says it will need to match Bush's war chest. To be sure, not all indicators pointed upward. Dean has fallen behind Gephardt in Iowa in recent polls. Dean also remains behind Gephardt in the battle for union support.

But one theory holds that only two factors will matter in the end for a candidate's chances for the nomination: money raised prior to 2004 and standing in national polls on the eve of the Iowa caucuses.

Under that calculation, said Mayer, who arrived at the theory, "If you had to make book on these candidates, you'd make Dean a front-runner but you would not make him a heavy favorite."

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