LONDONDERRY, N.H. – Larry O'Sullivan said Howard Dean (search) "looked like a yahoo" bellowing in defeat from Iowa. Patricia Fields thinks he was "a bit wild." And Kim Lindley-Soucy said he was "overly excitable."
So why did these New Hampshire Democrats stand shoulder-to-shoulder Friday to listen to the embattled presidential candidate's new stump speech? They were giving the former Vermont governor a second look.
Dean's presidential aspirations, teetering on the edge of a political abyss, depend on voters such as Fields, Lindley-Soucy and O'Sullivan finding virtue in his faults -- and giving him what O'Sullivan called "one more once-over."
It is too early to know whether Dean has turned his campaign around, and all the traditional measures -- polls, endorsements, conventional wisdom and a simple lack of time before Tuesday's primary -- lean heavily against him. But interviews with nearly two dozen undecided voters Friday suggest that Dean's political makeover could at least stop his precipitous slide.
That would not be good for Sen. John Edwards (search), Wesley Clark (search) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (search) -- all struggling to pass Dean and Sen. John Kerry (search), whose lead in state polls has widened since the campaign left Iowa.
"When we saw him up their shouting and yelling, it put a lot of us on the fence. There's not a lot of difference between these guys so it doesn't take a lot to move us from one to another," said Ed Hennessy, 58, a retired union worker in Nashua, N.H., who deserted Dean last week.
"But I'm back in his camp. It was just a slip of the tongue, and nobody's perfect," Hennessy said. "I've got to give him credit for speaking from his heart."
Hennessy could have been reading Dean's script. Devised in the desperate hours after Iowa's upset, Dean's new stump speech is one part confessional ("I'm not a perfect man"), one part explanation ("I am passionate, but we can't beat Bush without some intensity"), and a heavy dose of New England populism ("I speak from my heart, not my head").
Woven throughout Dean's new script is criticism of his opponents. He claims he is the political outsider to their Beltway-insider resumes.
"Listen, to what they say. 'You can have middle-class tax cuts. You can have health care for every American,"' Dean told the crowd here. "You believe that?" He said voters are tired of politicians who "blather at election time" and "say anything just to get elected." Later he adds that voters want "a candidate who will tell the truth."
The five-term Vermont governor, no stranger to Washington institutions such as the Democratic Governors Association, said American needs change. "We're not going to do this by nominating a Washington insider," said Dean, former chairman of the DGA.
More than 250 people sat in folding chairs and watched Dean stroll the stage. Many said they weren't considering voting for him a week ago, either because they were never interested or -- a sentiment heard most often -- they were turned off by his defeat and post-election performance.
O'Sullivan, 50, a salesman from Londonderry, said Dean had not been on his short list.
"But here I am because of the impression he gave in the debate, despite the fact that he looked like a yahoo a couple days before in Iowa. I think he made up for it," O'Sullivan said.
He had watched Thursday night's debate, where Dean previewed his new strategy. Many voters stayed tuned afterward for an ABC interview with Dean and his wife, Judy.
Dean's pollster, Paul Maslin, said polls won't reflect the impact of the debate and television interview until the weekend, but the candidate expressed optimism.
"I think we've turned the corner and we're going to come back up and the question is can we close the gap between now and Tuesday," Dean said.
The race is fluid. Public polls show up to 20 percent of voters are undecided. Dean advisers say they hope they can stop his slide in polls then claim a comeback -- if not outright victory -- on the night of the New Hampshire primary, much as Bill Clinton did in 1992 when Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas beat him by 8 percentage points amid an extramarital affair scandal.
Lieberman's polls show that 70 percent of people who have selected a favorite say they are open to reconsidering.
"I didn't know he had a family," said Lindley-Soucy, cradling her baby daughter. She was not a Dean supporter, certainly not immediately after Iowa. Suddenly, she's curious.
"He comes across as honest, even when it hurts," she said.
Fields, 66, a mental health counselor from Londonderry, said the media has made too much of the speech.
"I think he was too tame to tell you the truth. I hope he doesn't back down," she said. "That passion is what we need. He's the real thing."
In Nashua, N.H., a crowd member told Dean the media had "distorted" the speech. Dean did not argue the point.
Gloria Kelley, 53, a union worker who attended one of his events, said she still has her doubts about Dean.
"He was over the top, wasn't he? It makes you wonder about his judgment," she said, echoing the sentiments of many Democratic strategists and rank-and-file voters. Then a smile crept across her face, and she said, "I think I'll give him a second look, if the media doesn't mind."