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Eileen McNamara

A bold, new messenger

By Eileen McNamara
January 11, 2004

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PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- It has been almost 19 years since two brash newcomers incurred the ire of many of their colleagues in the US Senate after they hopped a plane to Managua to meet with Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega.

Republican Senator Barry Goldwater called for a formal reprimand of Senators John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Tom Harkin of Iowa for negotiating with the Sandinista leader at a time when the United States was supporting the antigovernment rebels. Even some Democrats grumbled about the showboating of the two freshmen, only three months into their first terms.

No disciplinary action was taken, but for a long time Kerry and Harkin shared a kind of informal probationary status with senior colleagues hopeful that the pair would assume a more humble place in the stratified hierarchy on Capitol Hill. "There's an old saying -- if you don't like the message, kill the messenger," Kerry said dismissively back then of criticism that neither he nor Harkin had the portfolio to have acted so presumptuously.

It is an anecdote worth remembering after a week in which Kerry and his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination excoriated brash newcomer Howard Dean for everything from his changing views of the Iowa caucus process to his evolving plans for a middle-class tax cut. As Harkin's surprise endorsement of the former Vermont governor over the Massachusetts senator suggests, killing this messenger is proving even more difficult for the now-entrenched Kerry than finding a clear message of his own.

A stop at a Dean rally at the 125-year-old Music Hall in this coastal community provides some sense of what Kerry and the rest of the doctor's rivals are up against. Members of the press corps, playing Solitaire or answering e-mails on their laptops, may have grown weary of a stump speech that has not varied much in months, but the 900-plus voters who turned out for the candidate's midday appearance on Friday were electrified.

It was hardly Dean's first well-received visit to this city of 26,000, but many in the audience were hearing the jabs at President Bush and the calls for environmental protection and educational investment for the first time. They stamped their feet at key points and stood to applaud eight times in 45 minutes.

Wesley Clark is drawing large crowds as the Jan. 27 primary approaches -- he packed the aisles as well as the pews of a Portsmouth church the other day -- but it will be difficult for the retired general or anyone else to trump Dean's organizational superiority in New Hampshire.

In the small cities that pass for urban centers and the small towns that dominate this rural state, no one has to stop at a filling station to ask where and when Dean is due. Roads leading to rally sites are invariably lined with Dean campaign signs and hand-lettered posters that remind passersby what time the candidate will appear and where.

As the mercury hovered near zero on Friday, a dozen wool-down-and-fleece-clad Dean volunteers lined Congress Street, steering voters toward the rally. Once inside the theater, the audience met a dozen more volunteers soliciting financial support and recruiting fresh campaign workers. By the time the candidate took the stage, volunteers had distributed scores of Dean campaign signs throughout the hall that waved in unison every time Dean hit a responsive chord.

Where his rivals hear anger, Dean's audiences hear hope for real change. What his rivals perceive as rashness, Dean's supporters see as boldness. When he tells them that he does not have the power to change the country, that they do, these voters believe him and, maybe for the first time, think the political process belongs to them, not the candidates hungry for their votes.

It is an intoxicant, the empowerment that Howard Dean is peddling in New Hampshire. He keeps proving he can bring this state's voters to their feet. Now he needs to get them to the polls.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at mcnamara@globe.com.