No. 1 way to show you can be laid-back

Image: Howard Dean appears on `Letterman' to do the Top 10 list and, he hopes, turn his campaign around.

Election 2004

New Hampshire

January 23, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HANOVER, N.H. - One by one, Howard Dean read through the placards as they were held behind the camera, stumbling at times, his voice low and scratchy from a bad cold. "Solution No. 10," he intoned, "Switch to decaf. ... No. 8: Marry Rachel on the final episode of Friends. ... No. 6: Show a little more skin."

At that point, the production people directing the taping urged Dean to remove his suit jacket, but he protested dryly, "Our guys say no - it's not presidential." Instead, he flipped open the jacket, but it caught on the microphone wire taped to his back. "I can't flip it over my shoulder," he explained.

He tried again, and one production aide praised him in the tone of an effusive movie director: "Love it. We love it."

The candidate who has been derided as too intense was submitting to the time-honored ritual for those seeking to show themselves laid-back, appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman to recite the famous Top 10 list, in this case: "Ways, I, Howard Dean, can turn things around."

Solution No. 1, he finally announced: "Oh, I don't know - maybe fewer, red-faced rants."

It was supposed to be a top-secret taping at Lou's restaurant on Main Street, down the street from Dartmouth College, after the luncheon guests were shooed out. No one was supposed to see it other than the campaign staff and the few employees cleaning up from the lunch hour.

But two reporters, from The (Manchester)Union Leader and The Sun, happened to be in the cafe and witnessed the memorable sight of Dean, still devastated by the fallout from his frenzied speech in Iowa, trying his best to turn his plight into a good laugh, even though it took a few takes to get his lines right.

The former Vermont governor was planted before the camera, a wire was strung up his back, and he was instructed to read from 10 large white placards held up by an aide behind the camera. Only gradually did the restaurant staff realize what they were witnessing: Dean, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee just a few weeks ago and now the butt of humor for his famous shriek, was resorting to humor to save his campaign:

"No. 4: Start working out and speaking with an Austrian accent (said in an Austrian accent, which Dean pulled off without trouble). No. 3: I can't give specifics yet, but it involves Ted Danson."

Here, Dean paused, confused. An aide realized the problem: "The guv doesn't understand the Danson one." Dean, who doesn't have cable television at home, was reminded that Danson was the actor on Cheers. Ah, yes. But he still didn't seem sure what the joke was about.

It was a funny list, but few aides were laughing. This was serious business and a step the campaign had been hoping to avoid. For most of the week, the campaign has declined to apologize for the fiery speech.

There were a few interruptions. One waitress closed the cash register too loudly. Another was asked by a Dean aide to turn off the radio ("I hate these kind of people," the waitress muttered.)

Dean gave the list a final run-through, and then stopped, listening to someone speaking to him on the wire strung to his ear. It was Letterman, wrapping up the taping. Dean nodded, and answered, "Hi Dave. Good luck. Thank you."

The wire was plucked off Dean's back, his aides surrounded him with congratulations, and he slipped back into the snow. Outside, a few Dean supporters from Dartmouth who had been frustrated from getting a glimpse of the taping by a black sheet drawn over the window wondered just what it would look like. They weren't sure it would put a complete end to the mockery of Dean, but they hoped it would help.

"This will add to his image as a more chill guy, as opposed to what the media is portraying him to be," said Kate Schuerman, a sophomore from California. "Of course, it will take more than this. It's a whole process. He might have to go on Leno, too."

Letterman's top 10

"Ways I, Howard Dean, can turn things around.

10. Switch to decaf.

9. Unveil new slogan, "Vote for Dean and get one dollar off your next purchase at Blimpie."

8. Marry Rachel on the final episode of Friends.

7. Don't change a thing, it's going great.

6. Show a little more skin.

5. Go on American Idol and give them a taste of those pipes.

4. Start working out and speaking with an Austrian accent.

3. I can't give specifics yet, but it involves Ted Danson.

2. Fire the staffer who suggested I do this lousy Top 10 list instead of actually campaigning.

1. Oh, I don't know - maybe fewer, red-faced rants.

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