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Under pressure, Dean retools

Maverick seeks to regain footing as polls cite drop

By Glen Johnson
Globe Staff / January 17, 2004

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MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa -- For months, Howard Dean has been the outspoken maverick, bashing the "Washington Democrats" he believes have let the party down while shrugging off the counterpunches of his rivals in the presidential race.

If he has gotten rattled -- as he did last fall after criticism over his comments about courting Southern voters who display the Confederate flag -- he has recovered.

But in recent days, a sustained series of attacks by other Democrats appears to have thrown Dean off his equilibrium.

The candidate famous for straight talk has cloistered himself inside a private bus and cut his stump speech in half, ending his long practice of taking audience questions and limiting his conversations with voters to a chance encounter afterward.

His leads in Iowa and New Hampshire opinion polls have eroded over the past two weeks. The thunderous crowds that had been a hallmark of his campaign have been replaced by muted audiences sitting in rooms that have been downsized to make them appear full.

Even Dean's appearance has been reconsidered. The knotted tie, rolled-up shirt sleeves, and reddened face that were trademarks of Dean's no-nonsense directness have been replaced by comfy sweaters, an open collar, and less fiery oratory.

In an exchange with reporters yesterday as his campaign caravan rolled toward this central Iowa town, Dean played down the changes. He has taken to sweaters, he said, to follow the example of Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who wears a fleece vest and who has counseled Dean to go positive as the voting nears.

Dean also said he knows he has to bear up under the pressure of a national campaign.

"Some of the scrutinizing and the poking and the prodding -- that happens while you're in Washington, too," he said. "I think you just have to get used to it."

But longtime Dean watchers see something different at work.

"This is a race to lock up the nomination before Howard's flaws emerge, before there are cracks in the facade. Well, guess what? They've come into full view," said Garrison Nelson, professor of political science at the University of Vermont, who has known Dean since 1980 and has clashed with him on occasion.

The pressure of a national campaign and intense media scrutiny is unlike anything Dean has ever confronted, Nelson said. "He's never faced a serious race in Vermont. He never challenged an incumbent, and he never faced a statewide winner."

Over the course of a career in which he was elected lieutenant governor in 1986, elevated to governor in 1991, and a gubernatorial candidate between 1992 and 2000, Dean faced only two sitting officeholders.

The presidential field confronting him today is loaded with experienced statewide and national candidates, especially John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, his two primary challengers in Iowa.

Dean himself triggered much of the sniping he now faces.

Returning to the campaign trail after a brief Christmas break, he launched a vociferous attack not only on his rivals, some of them veteran members of the House and Senate he hopes to lead one day, but on the Republican-controlled Congress with which he might have to work.

Then, as he was enjoying what appeared to be a solid lead in the Iowa polls, Dean shifted his approach: He tried to take the high road, toning down his rhetoric, focusing his fire on President Bush more than on fellow Democrats.

It did not last. The pounding from rivals was unrelenting. Ads accused him of favoring cuts in Medicare. He was labeled a flip-flopper for talking about a plan for middle-class tax relief after blasting them for supporting middle-class tax cuts. On Sunday, he was at a loss for words after the Rev. Al Sharpton questioned his commitment to diversity while governor.

By the next morning, Dean had had it. As polls indicated expected victories in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary sliding into doubt, he decided to ditch his approach of staying above the fray.

"He just came in and went, `I'm sick of getting beaten up on. I'm going to go out and let it rip and not worry about it anymore,' " recalled Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi, as the former Vermont governor's bus tour rolled across southern Iowa.

A couple hours later, Dean stood in a spotless banquet room at Central College in Pella and made good on his vow. His campaign, he told a crowd of supporters, was "a struggle between us and the Washington politicians and the established press."

Speaking with reporters in Mount Pleasant later that day, Dean trumpeted his new strategy: "I'm going after everybody, because I'm tired of being the pin cushion here."

His campaign launched an attack ad noting Gephardt, Kerry, and Senator John Edwards of North Carolina all voted for the war in Iraq.

Dean called Gephardt part of "the old problem," he labeled retired Army General Wesley K. Clark of Arkansas "a Republican," and accused Kerry and Edwards of being weaklings in their dealings with Bush and too deeply embedded in Washington's bureaucratic culture.

But by late in the week, as the poll numbers worsened, Dean again reconsidered. Yesterday, a day after Harkin told reporters he had urged Dean to close with a positive campaign, Dean pulled the attack ad off the air.

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com.

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