After Iowa, Dean backers steadfastly march on

Tense volunteers canvass for votes in crucial N.H.

Election 2004

January 26, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CONCORD, N.H. - The large, brick Federal-style house looming ahead on School Street should have cheered the three Howard Dean volunteers folded inside the red Volkswagen Beetle: Festooned above its long row of windows was a huge, blue Dean banner.

But there was no light-hearted delight taken in the sight of the sign. Instead, the woman behind the wheel, Almena Pettit, a 56-year-old volunteer from Florida, muttered to her companions, "I hope there are people in all of those rooms."

There is tension in the bitterly cold air here for the legions of supporters who have come from across the country to campaign for Dean, the former Vermont governor whose insurgent bid galvanized the race for the Democratic nomination. After appearing nearly unstoppable a month ago, the mold-breaking Dean campaign faces what could be its deciding test in tomorrow's New Hampshire primary.

For the hundreds of die-hard Dean volunteers here, the sudden raising of the stakes is disorienting. Just a few weeks ago, Dean looked to be cruising to an easy win in New Hampshire, leading his nearest rivals by more than 20 percentage points in state polls.

But after his third-place finish in the Iowa caucus and his much-ridiculed post-caucus speech, Dean finds himself trailing Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in most New Hampshire polls. While Dean's slide appeared to bottom out over the weekend, and his numbers even inched up in a few polls, his supporters readily acknowledge that he needs a strong second-place finish to remain in the running.

It is hard for many of them to believe that the campaign - a mass movement that raised $40 million, most of it in small donations, and revolutionized the use of the Internet in politics - should now be fighting for its life in the first primary.

"I was depressed for three days after Iowa," said Floyd W. Nease, a Vermont state representative who came to campaign Saturday with a busload of supporters from Dean's home state. "If he doesn't finish a strong second here, well, if it's not done, then it's nearly done."

Around the state, the campaign that had for months felt for so many of its followers like a giddy groundswell took on the unsmiling aspect of a last stand.

In door-to-door visits targeting women voters, among whom Dean's support lags, volunteers passed out videotapes with copies of Diane Sawyer's ABC interview last week with Dean and his physician wife, Judith Steinberg Dean, which many analysts believe has helped mitigate the image created by his Iowa shriek.

At major intersections around the state, young volunteers waved Dean signs into the freezing night Saturday, long after sign-wavers from other campaigns had quit the cold. One of them, Sam Dorman, a 28-year- old who flew in from Los Angeles on Friday, said the commitment was a sign of how much Dean's younger supporters had invested in the campaign.

For many of them, he said, the campaign had been their first entry to politics, or any kind of social movement. If the campaign were to collapse so suddenly, he said, some of them could end up as disenchanted with politics as they were before - particularly given the role that the news media's lambasting of Dean's Iowa speech could play in a defeat.

"For me, it's a continuation of the frustration I felt" before the campaign, said Dorman. "Everyone in the media was waiting for something to use against him. It struck a real chord of frustration."

Earlier Saturday in Concord, Pettit, driving the Beetle she borrowed from a friend in Maine, set off to go canvassing door to door with Nease and a second Vermont state representative, David Sharpe. In Concord alone, small teams such as theirs aimed to visit 800 homes of Dean supporters or undecided voters.

For nearly two hours, the three volunteers wandered in the single-digit cold, getting lost on streets of densely packed, old frame houses, and finding many of their targeted voters not at home.

And several of those who did answer the door were not exactly welcoming. One woman declared, before Sharpe could identify himself, that she was a Republican, and swiftly slammed the door in his face.

Greeting an elderly woman nearby, Nease accidentally called his candidate "John Dean." ("It's too cold to think," he said later.) The woman regarded Nease with fear and told him, "You've got the wrong house. I would not even consider it."

The canvassers tried to take the rejections in stride. The Vermont legislators said they had come to help Dean even though they had entered office after his last term as governor, because they had found that he'd left the state in very good shape.

"He did the right thing in Vermont, and I think he could do the right thing in Washington," said Sharpe, an automotive technology instructor from Bristol.

Boyd Smith, a 46-year-old environmental consultant, told Sharpe that Dean's handling of the post-Iowa fallout had impressed him.

"It's going to take a lot of oomph to beat the Bush machine," said Smith. "I like Dean's fire and passion."

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