MADISON, Wis. – Dismissing polls and endorsements that favor his Democratic opponents, Howard Dean (search) on Monday asked Wisconsin voters to support his faltering campaign and not "rubber stamp the choice of others" in their state primary next week.
"The media claims this contest is over," the former Vermont governor told about 300 people as he launched a two-day tour and started running TV ads for the Feb. 17 primary. "But you don't have to listen to them. Wisconsin, you have the power to choose the strongest candidate to beat George W. Bush."
Dean, trying to build momentum for a come-from-behind victory over front-runner John Kerry (search), invoked the spirit of Wisconsin progressives Robert LaFollette, who served in the U.S. Senate at the turn of the 20th century, former Sen. William Proxmire and incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold.
"Wisconsin knows that what is on the line in this primary is the very heart and soul of the Democratic Party — and the very heart and soul of this country," he said.
Dean told local television reporters that he intends to stay in the presidential race regardless of the outcome in Wisconsin. He said last week that he'd be out of the race if he lost here, but had distanced himself from that statement in recent days. Still, he has focused on the state in what is widely seen as a last stand for his campaign.
"I've just changed my mind," Dean said in the interview. He said supporters had persuaded him, during the past week, to stay in the race, and that he is campaigning to win Wisconsin.
"We're in, we're bringing something to the Democratic Party," Dean said.
Polls show Dean well behind Kerry in Wisconsin, but Dean has raised more than $1 million from his Internet supporters for an ad campaign and to help with his ground organization. After losing three weekend caucuses, he remains winless in 12 delegate elections and trailed in polls in Virginia and Tennessee, which vote Tuesday.
In a blow to Dean, the 1.5 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees on Monday officially withdrew its support from his campaign.
Without naming any of his presidential opponents, Dean repeatedly tied Washington Democrats to the policies of the Bush administration, which he criticized. Two of his rivals, Kerry and John Edwards, are U.S. senators.
"Who will stand up for fairness and common sense?" he asked. "A person who stood up when it was right or a person who stood up when it was popular?"
Among the legislation Dean said the "Washington Democrats" helped the president push through Congress are the No Child Left Behind Act education reform law, authorization for the Iraq war and tax cuts.
Later, a woman in the audience at Dean's town hall meeting in Green Bay, Wis., asked why he'd be a better opponent for President Bush than Kerry. Dean has been careful not to criticize his Democratic opponents by name and told the woman he didn't want to criticize Kerry.
But he said, "The reason I'm more electable than John Kerry is I'll stand up for what I believe in, I don't care what the polls say."
Dean also said Kerry was wrong to oppose the Persian Gulf War in 1991, has taken too much special-interest money throughout his career and doesn't have a strong record of legislative accomplishment.
The campaign was trying to fire up Dean's online legions by asking them to vote for an ad to air in Wisconsin. The plan was for one of three supporters to describe why he or she was backing the former Vermont governor.
Dean is spending $50,000 in Wisconsin's five media markets through Tuesday to run his 60-second biographical ad. The television industry estimates that the buy is large enough that the average TV viewer in each market likely could see the ad once over the two-day run.