FORT DODGE, Iowa - Shaking Howard Dean's hand at a pancake breakfast here the other day, supporter Dan Bednar gave his candidate two words of advice: "Be yourself."
Dean might still be the front-runner in the Democratic presidential contest, but he is no longer the clear favorite to win tomorrow's Iowa caucuses. The first real test of the 2004 race is widely seen as a four-way race, with Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards chasing Dean and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt.
The tightening contest has blurred Dean's image, sending mixed signals to millions of voters. Is Dean an outsider or an insider? A liberal or a moderate? Is he still outraged or turning more upbeat?
In Iowa, the angry rhetoric that helped lift the former Vermont governor out of obscurity has fed doubts about his character and temperament. At the same time, endorsements from prominent Democrats might be blunting the insurgent appeal of his outsider candidacy.
Suspicious of insiders
To backers such as Bednar, a 48-year-old prison guard, the biggest danger is that Dean is paying too much attention to "the Washington insiders who are telling him to stop being so angry. They want him to stop being Howard Dean. But that's not Howard Dean, because Howard Dean's not phony."
Don Baer, a communications director in the Clinton White House, said Dean had done quite well by being "very direct and blunt. That's kind of refreshing. ... Clearly, in the last month, he's had a lot of snafus. He's said things that have not come out in the way he wanted them to."
But Baer, who is not aligned with any of the candidates, said the larger challenge for Dean is making his candidacy seem less negative and more about where he'd like to lead the country:
"No one ever wins the presidency with a negative message."
Dean's most important Iowa supporter, Sen. Tom Harkin, has been advising the candidate to sound more positive in his final push. Like all the contenders, Dean is hurtling across the state this weekend, wooing undecided voters and trying to keep wavering backers from defecting. Trading his coat and tie for more casual wear, he is adopting a less confrontational stance in stump speeches.
"I personally like John Edwards, and I like John Kerry and I like Dick Gephardt," he says. In a new, softer TV ad airing around the state, he quietly implores his supporters not to stay home on caucus night.
Dean advisers have clamped a tighter rein on him, sharply limiting his exposure to questions from reporters, and from ordinary voters at campaign events, in an effort to prevent an unscripted moment that might prove disastrous.
Meantime, Gephardt, whose political career is on the line here, aired a tough ad attacking Dean's views on Medicare and Social Security - issues of great importance to the seniors who dominate the caucuses.
"How much do you really know about Howard Dean?" it asked, trying to play on doubts.
The gaffes that led some voters to conclude that Dean too often fails to think before he speaks began in Iowa last fall. Dean told a newspaper reporter that he wanted to be "the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks," a comment for which he eventually apologized.
More than two months later, as his caucus campaign ends, he is unapologetically addressing concerns about his impulsiveness: "A gaffe in Washington is when you tell the truth, and the people in Washington don't think you should have."
Interviews with dozens of Iowa voters have found that some Democrats who were originally attracted to Dean's candidacy, especially women, had shifted because of what they saw as his tendency to make impolitic remarks. Some said it made Dean seem unpresidential and convinced them he wouldn't be the best candidate to beat George W. Bush, an overriding concern for many.
Dean's sinking spell in the polls has spread to New Hampshire, where his lead in advance of next week's primary has been sharply reduced by retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Kerry. National surveys also show the race tightening.
And yet, that has not stopped the flow of endorsements from prominent Democrats, including former Vice President Al Gore, former Sen. Bill Bradley and 35 members of Congress, more than Gephardt has. Last week, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun quit the presidential race and backed Dean.
Today, Dean will be in Plains, Ga., to get the tacit endorsement of former President Jimmy Carter, whose Iowa victory in 1976 helped put the caucuses on the map.
Greg Schneiders, a former Carter White House aide, says that Dean "has gone through the entire cycle of building up and tearing down and doubts [about his candidacy] before the first vote has been cast."
Carter, by contrast, encountered similar difficulties much later, after he had built a delegate lead large enough to survive a series of late defeats.