Campaign aides offered conflicting reports about whether the former Vermont governor had decided to drop out of the race, would continue to the next big round of contests on March 2, or would suspend active campaigning without formally pulling out. Dean didn't clarify his intentions Tuesday. His campaign scheduled an event for Wednesday afternoon.
"We are not done," he told supporters in a Madison ballroom.
Dean suggested that he wasn't persuaded that the party had changed for anything other than winning the current election. "The transformation we have wrought is a transformation of convenience, not conviction," he said. "Let's fight on. Never give up."
Regardless of what decision ultimately is made, Dean's distant third-place finish Tuesday was a remarkable turnaround for a candidate who at the start of the year was thought poised to wrap up the nomination in the first handful of contests. He is winless in the 17 caucuses and primaries to date.
Dean accepted credit for himself and his supporters for charting a new course for this election season. "You have already changed the Democratic Party and we will not stop," he declared to cheering supporters. "You have already written the platform of the Democratic Party for the convention."
Spending the past nine days in Wisconsin did not seem to help. An exit poll found his voters were likely to have decided before last month, and just one-fifth said they decided on Tuesday. Dean's strongest performance was among young adults, and he tied Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search) and slightly bested North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search) with that group.
The exit poll was conducted for The Associated Press and television networks by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.
While he struggled to remain in the Democratic presidential race, Dean also lost a court skirmish at home Tuesday. A judge ruled in a lawsuit that he could not claim executive privilege and seal for 10 years a broad swath of his gubernatorial records.
It seemed unlikely that Dean would have much of a campaign organization left to accommodate a continuing campaign. Staff members were making plans to leave their jobs and even his campaign chairman defected to Kerry this week.
He also appeared on the verge of losing his remaining organized labor support. The Service Employees International Union, which had pledged to stay with Dean through Wisconsin, planned a conference call Wednesday so leaders could assess support. He already lost the backing of another prominent union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, more than a week ago.
Officials said the union was aware of the need to show labor solidarity headed into the general election -- a nod toward Thursday's planned endorsement of Kerry by the AFL-CIO.
The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, which backs Dean, also appeared to be nearing a decision about withdrawing its support.