EAST LANSING, Mich. – Democrat Howard Dean (search) said Thursday he's focusing his presidential campaign on winning delegates, defying conventional wisdom that he needs a state victory next week to keep his troubled bid alive.
One day after a staff shake-up, Dean said he will continue running even if he doesn't win any of the seven states that hold primaries and caucuses Tuesday. His campaign has decided not to buy any television ads in those states, conserving his scarce resources for the Feb. 7 caucuses in Michigan and Washington state and the primary 10 days later in Wisconsin.
"We're going to have to win eventually," Dean said. "But the question was do we have to win on February 3. Of course we want to, but we don't have to. We need to amass as many delegates as we can."
Dean has been losing money and momentum since his defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire, leaving him with limited options. He is gambling that he can pick up delegates with second- and third-place finishes while high-spending rivals John Edwards (search) and Wesley Clark (search) spend themselves out of the race.
Dean's new campaign chief, Roy Neel, came on the job Thursday with his first order of business to shore up dwindling coffers. Neel said he is considering all options to run a more efficient operation, including squeezing in more fund-raisers between campaign events.
"Everything is on the table to make this campaign work," Neel said in a telephone interview.
Democratic delegates are awarded proportionately based on the popular vote cast within individual congressional districts as well as a state as a whole. Dean hopes to gain delegates with at least 15 percent of the popular vote in most or all the congressional districts in the states voting Tuesday.
That strategy, according to Dean aides, would allow the former Vermont governor to remain close to front-runner John Kerry (search) in the delegate chase until the political landscape improves for Dean. The risk is that Kerry will capture so much momentum that he becomes unstoppable, or Edwards or another candidate emerges as the main rival to Kerry.
Until then, Dean will focus on drawing distinctions with his rivals and argue that no one else can beat President Bush. His foes are certain to question Dean's claim as the Washington outsider considering his decision to replace campaign manager Joe Trippi with Neel, a former Washington lobbyist tied to Al Gore.
"We desperately need a president who's right for the country and will stand up and do the tough things and not the popular things," he said at a rally at Michigan State University. "And I don't see anybody like that in Washington, D.C."
Michigan plays prominently in Dean's strategy, with its 128 pledged delegates -- far more than any state voting Tuesday.
"Michigan is the biggest delegate pool that we have," Dean told reporters aboard his campaign plane. "I said consistently yesterday that we're after delegates. We have a good organization in Michigan and we want to work hard in Michigan and try to win."
Dean had an early advantage in the state, which has allowed caucus-goers to cast their ballots on the Internet, an option tailor-made for Dean's Web-based organization. But after Dean's loss in Iowa, Kerry opened a double-digit lead in the Michigan polls and Gov. Jennifer Granholm plans to endorse Kerry. The Massachusetts senator also has several other leading Michigan Democrats in his corner.
The presidential nominee will be selected this summer with 2,162 delegates at the Democratic National Convention. Although it is mathematically possible for Dean to win the nomination without an early victory, it's a risky strategy and he could face pressure from party leaders to back the front-runner.
Some of Dean's backers are dubious of his plan. In a conference call with members of Congress who have endorsed him, Dean was told bluntly that finishing second wasn't good enough -- that he had to show he could win a primary.
Dean campaign chairman Steve Grossman also said Wednesday that the candidate must win a presidential primary in the next two weeks to keep even his most loyal donor base -- those giving modest amounts over the Web -- contributing enough to make him financially competitive.
The leader among the Democrats with more than $40 million raised in 2003, Dean has less than $5 million on hand and bills to be paid. On Wednesday, he asked his staff to defer their paychecks for two weeks as Trippi resigned.
In an interview with MSNBC Thursday night, Trippi broke down when discussing his departure and how Dean inspired him.
"You give something this much of your life, and the sacrifices you make, and he really did and still does," Trippi said. "I really believe he will be the nominee of this party."