TACOMA, Wash. – In a state that prefers its coffee strong and its politicians feisty, Howard Dean's (search) sputtering presidential campaign may find the life raft it needs since his fall from the front-runner's mantle.
The land of Microsoft (search) and anti-war protesters seems tailor made for Dean, a former Vermont governor whose Internet-driven campaign and opposition to the Iraq war vaulted him to the front of the Democratic pack.
He also has drawn some of his biggest crowds and fattest campaign contributions from the region.
Winless after contests in nine states, Dean predicted a breakthrough win in Saturday's caucuses. But rival and front-runner John Kerry (search) is looking for wins, too, and hopes to make Washington one of them.
"We're known for our edgy liberalism," said state Democratic Chairman Paul Berendt, who backs Dean and thinks he can blunt Kerry's momentum after the Massachusetts senator's wins Tuesday in five states.
"Washington loves the maverick," Berendt said in an interview Wednesday, noting previous successes here over establishment favorites by Democrats Paul Tsongas, Jerry Brown, Gary Hart, and Jesse Jackson.
Kerry, who delivered a jubilant victory speech in Seattle after his wins Tuesday, will be a strong contender for a big chunk of the delegates up for grabs. But Berendt predicted that Dean will score the much-needed victory he needs to breathe new life into his imperiled campaign.
The state's 76 pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention are at stake -- one of the largest bloc since voting began last month in Iowa.
Michigan and Maine Democrats also caucus this weekend, bringing the three-state delegate total to 228. A candidate needs 2,162 delegates to win the nomination, and Dean was second to Kerry in the race for delegates, with 121, according to an Associated Press tally.
There are no public polls in Washington state and Maine, but strategists for rival campaigns say Kerry should win both easily. Internal polls show him safely leading in both states, sources close to the senator said.
But Dean's strategists hold out a glimmer of hope because of Washington's history of backing underdogs, and Maine has a small, unpredictable Democratic voting base.
Confident of victory, Kerry chose not to advertise in the weekend states, though he will travel to them. Dean had no choice; he is short on money and is saving his resources for Wisconsin, which has its primary Feb. 17.
Dean, who had appearances in Spokane, Tacoma and Seattle on Wednesday, urged Washington to live up to its reputation for being a cage-rattler that doesn't always take its cues from voters elsewhere.
"We need to win Washington state," Dean told a Spokane audience. "Washington state will be the turning point, if we win, of this campaign."
Kerry paid no attention to Dean's flagging candidacy during his Washington stops. He enjoyed larger crowds and appealed for Washington's caucus votes, spending most of his speeches giving a foretaste of his general election campaign themes, including his taunting war cry: "Bring it on!"
Dean's opposition to the Iraq war endeared him to many in Washington, especially Seattle, where thousands protested in the streets. The state party was the first in the country to oppose the president's pre-emptive war policies, and Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., an early Dean supporter, went to Baghdad to highlight the issue.
Dean raised nearly $680,000 in Washington state last year, more than most of his rivals combined, and Pam Eakes, his national fund-raising chairwoman, lives in Seattle.
In a state with Microsoft and a tech-savvy population, Dean organized "meet-up" meetings, campaign solicitations and cyber-leafletting to a high science. Party insiders signed on early.
Kirstin Brost, a state Democratic Party spokeswoman, said the test will be between Dean's organizational prowess the momentum for Kerry, who is backed by Gov. Gary Locke and most of the state's congressional delegation.
But in caucus states, the ability to organize dedicated supporters can be more important than general popularity among the broader electorate. That's because caucuses require voters to participate in meetings that can last for hours, rather than ducking in and out of a polling place to quickly cast a ballot.
"It's anybody's guess what will happen," she said. "It's a caucus state and just momentum won't do it for you."
Steve Haro, Dean's state campaign spokesman, said the passion of Washington's voters will make the difference.
"We were here growing our roots, deep and wide, far earlier than any other candidate, and they are still deep and wide," Haro said.