A resilient Dean forcing his rivals to shift gears

Candidate no longer viewed as improbable


WASHINGTON - After months of being viewed by Democrats as an improbable if persistent candidate, Howard Dean has erased questions about his staying power and has forced his rivals to alter their strategies to counter his increasing influence on the race, according to party leaders, strategists and even rival campaigns.

Over the space of a week, Dean lined up two important labor endorsements and became the first Democrat to withdraw from the public campaign finance system. That strategy, though potentially risky, will allow him to outspend his rivals and further establish himself as an unconventional driving force in the primaries.

While Dean was shaken this week by attacks on his statement that he wanted to be "the candidate for guys with Confederate flags," he thus far seems to have endured the harsh criticism in a way that even his competitors said demonstrated the resilience of his candidacy and the intense loyalty of his supporters.

Given the size of the field, Dean's lack of experience in national politics and his tendency for intemperate remarks, his success at navigating the early months of the Democratic nomination battle hardly means that he is assured of being nominated in Boston in July. Dean, a former governor of Vermont, faces particularly tough going once the race turns South, given his more liberal views on issues such as domestic partnership for gays and his opposition to the war in Iraq.

But Democrats across the country are expressing admiration for Dean's evolution as a candidate and no longer view him simply as an intriguing if quirky doctor from Vermont who would like to be president.

"There's a mystique about Dean," said Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston, who is supporting Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. "Every time you have a presidential campaign, there is one candidate that has the mystique, and usually by now, by this time, it's done. Dean is different."

Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, who has not endorsed a candidate in the race, said: "He's the only Democrat who can keep pace with Bush financially. And he wears well. He's not flashy or slick. He gives you direct answers to questions. He has the potential to be our strongest candidate."

The steady march of Dean's candidacy comes as the underlying landscape of the campaign has been shifted by an economy that is showing signs of coming back to life. But Dean, alone among the major Democratic candidates, has built his candidacy upon a platform of opposing the war. That stand has strengthened him in early Democratic contests where opposition to the invasion was high even before the situation deteriorated in Iraq.

Dean's competitors have begun spotlighting inconsistencies in his views on issues such as Medicare and gun control, as they challenge any perception that he is a straight-talking iconoclast.

Even Dean's advisers said that a perception of him as a front-runner could lend urgency to an anti-Dean movement, prompting Democrats in Washington who have warned that he would lead the party to a devastating defeat at Bush's hands to try to rally around a single candidate.

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