OSHKOSH, Wis. – Howard Dean (search) leaned over the lifeless body and touched the arm, as if feeling for a pulse. All of a sudden, the chest heaved, but the prognosis still looked bleak.
"I don't like that breathing pattern very much," Dr. Dean said, glancing at his wife, Judy, also a physician.
Neither offered a diagnosis Thursday because the body was just a training mannequin for nursing students at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh (search). But it seemed a metaphor for the struggling Democratic presidential campaign that Dean is hoping to breathe life into next week in the Wisconsin primary.
Lobbyists, pharmaceutical companies and corporate health care have succeeded in blocking efforts to hold down costs and expand coverage, Dean argued later at a town meeting devoted to health care.
"Special interests in Washington stop real change every time," he said. "The process is broken. In order to change America we have to change Washington."
The theme for the day fit with the rare campaign appearance of Dean's wife, but he was able to capitalize on it to make his central point that he represents the progressive political tradition for which Wisconsin is well known.
The former Vermont governor is tirelessly crisscrossing Wisconsin with a mix of events, ranging from the town hall meeting of roughly 100 people in Oshkosh to his tour of a free clinic for the uninsured at the university.
Dean stopped at the student union before heading downtown, hopping up on a ledge and urging people to follow him to the theater. "Come on down and we'll raise some Cain," he said.
He didn't exactly bring down the house, but he labored to advance the central themes of his campaign.
Health care also gave Dean a chance to air his now-familiar criticism of President Bush and make oblique references to front-runner John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator who has won 12 of the first 14 contests for Democratic delegates.
Dean is banking on scoring an upset victory to get himself back in the race, even asking his wife to return to the campaign trail. He also has developed a strategy that involves taking Kerry to task at every turn, usually without directly naming him, for his association with what Dean simply calls special interests.
On Wednesday, Dean said Kerry "is part of the corrupt political culture in Washington" because money has been raised for Kerry by former Sen. Bob Torricelli, who was forced to drop his re-election bid four years ago under an ethical cloud. Dean stuck to a policy of criticizing Washington insiders and "Washington fixtures" on Thursday, but the target of his barbs was perfectly clear.
Even Dean's wife was emphasizing his outsider status and the failures of Washington. "I want you to know how strongly I believe he's the best candidate in this race," Judy Dean told people attending the meeting.