Howard Dean (search) knows all too well that time is running out on his once high-flying presidential campaign, and yet he plows ahead, hoping Wisconsin voters will reconsider a decision even he concedes may already be made.
His message is simple and blunt: Democrats are about to make a grave mistake if they nominate John Kerry (search).
"We're not going to win this election if in October George Bush turns to the Democratic candidate and says: 'You were with me on the war; you were with me on No Child Left Behind; you were with me on tax cuts. Why don't you just support me?"' Dean tells his audiences.
Just six weeks ago, Dean seemed all but unstoppable — No. 1 in national polls, tops in Iowa and New Hampshire, emulated for his fund-raising prowess and grass-roots organization.
Today, he stands as the political also-ran who remains winless in 14 contests. The former Vermont governor hopes to pull off a surprise in Wisconsin Tuesday but faces the cold reality of a distant third in the latest state poll.
Dean has retreated from his message to supporters that a loss in Wisconsin will put him out of the race. On Friday, though, he said that he'd have to reevaluate how to conduct his campaign after the results are in.
"I'm going to go back to Burlington and regroup and figure out how to tackle 10 of the biggest states in America," Dean said as he stood before a 1970 John Deere tractor in Don Anibas' barn. "A lot depends on what happens in Wisconsin."
In response to a reporter's question, he added: "I think it's a little early to be writing post-mortems, yet."
For much of the week, Dean has sharpened his stop-Kerry rhetoric at each Wisconsin stop as he traverses the state from Lake Michigan to the banks of the Mississippi to Lake Superior. At stake Tuesday are 72 pledged delegates and another day in politics.
"We did not come all this way to change one Washington insider for another Washington insider," Dean declared to cheering students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Thursday.
Dean started the week with a newly minted campaign slogan: Real Choice. Real Change. His beginning was awkward as he woodenly read a speech Monday that harkened to Wisconsin progressives past and present — early 20th century Sen. Robert Lafollette, former Sen. William Proxmire and incumbent Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold.
Dean never mentions that Feingold has not endorsed him, but the line seldom fails to get a cheer from the partisan crowds who still pack most of his events.
Oratory is not one of Dean's strengths, but as the week has progressed, he's gotten more of the Wisconsin-specific lines down pat and his delivery has improved.
His primary objective from the beginning, he tells audiences, "was to make sure George W. Bush went back to Crawford, Texas, and was a one-term president." Faced with Kerry's fast-moving campaign, Dean now does everything he can to link him to Bush's policies. He argues that special interests control what happens in Washington and no one is as beholden to them as Kerry.
"This is not the person we need to head the Democratic Party," Dean said midweek at a Milwaukee event. "I think Senator Kerry is clearly not the person to carry the banner of the Democratic Party because he has acted so much like a Republican."
As the week has worn on, Dean has returned to his rhetoric about the need to "take back our country" that worked so well when he was the front-runner with a devoted following of Internet-savvy supporters.
Dean knows that voters have said they want a Democrat who is able to defeat Bush this fall. Dean argues that what voters really want is a distinct choice. "The Democratic Party is so afraid to lose that they can't win," he said.
Dean has even added a bid for his supporters' votes. In Madison, Wis., he encouraged backers of Rep. Dennis Kucinich, the choice of some die-hard liberals, to think about a candidate with a better chance of getting the nomination and winning in November.
"We're able to raise money and I have an executive record to go after George Bush and that matters," Dean said.