WASHINGTON – Howard Dean's (search) top advisers are urging him to abandon the Democratic presidential race if he loses Wisconsin's primary, officials said Sunday, but the former Vermont governor asserted, "We are not bowing out."
Dean, winless in 16 contests and badly trailing in Wisconsin (search) polls, said in an interview with The Associated Press, "In fact, we are staying in the race. The forum we will use to stay in the race remains to be seen. Period. Anybody who says anything to the contrary has misspoken."
But several of his top advisers said Sunday that Dean should cede the nomination if he loses Tuesday and consider several options, including dropping from the race outright, suspending his campaign or at least acknowledging John Kerry's (search) victory and redirecting his own efforts. They said the fallen front-runner was all but certain to effectively abandon his bid, one way or another.
Dean's own campaign chairman, Steve Grossman, said that if the former Vermont governor loses Tuesday's election Dean would seek to convert his grass-roots network into a movement that helps expand the party and elect the Democratic nominee.
"I have no doubt he'll support the nominee in any way he can, no matter who the nominee is and obviously that nominee looks to be John Kerry," Grossman said in a telephone interview from Vermont. "He may say that Tuesday night. He may wait until Wednesday or Thursday to say that."
Several other senior campaign officials said Dean would likely bow to intense pressure from his own advisers to give up his quixotic bid for the presidency, though they disagreed with Grossman over how much -- if any -- direct help Dean would be willing to give Kerry.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Dean is torn between his pragmatic conclusion that the race is about over and his emotional attachment to the fight itself and his supporters.
For the first time, there is a near-unanimous consensus among advisers that it would be foolhardy for Dean to continue fighting for the nomination beyond Wisconsin. The circle of die-hards has shrunk, and most confidants are telling Dean it's time to find a way to convert his Internet-fueled network into a long-term political movement.
Polls show Kerry, a Massachusetts senator who has won 14 of 16 contests to date, holding a wide lead in Wisconsin, site of Tuesday's contest. The Democratic candidates were meeting in the state for a debate Sunday.
Campaign manager Roy Neel did not dispute the sources' assertions, but cautioned that Dean is still mulling his options should he lose Tuesday.
"Governor Dean is hearing from a lot of people now with advice from every imaginable direction, but in the end, he'll make this decision about the rest of his campaign based on a number of things, including how the debate goes tonight and the Wisconsin primary Tuesday night," Neel said.
Dean had told supporters via e-mail that a defeat Tuesday would end his bid for the nomination, but he has backed away from that statement in recent days.
Several top advisers said Dean has privately acknowledged that his prospects for the presidency will effectively end if he suffers another major defeat Tuesday. He seems to be looking for a forum -- something short of an all-out campaign -- in which he can retain a voice in the election-year process, they said.
Grossman, for one, said Dean would quit attacking Kerry.
"Should he not win Wisconsin, you will see a meaningful shift in rhetoric, a meaningful shift in tone and a meaningful shift in the time he spends" building his campaign base into a long-term movement, Grossman said.
"In what form that movement takes, I can't spell that out to you and I don't think Howard could right now, either," said Grossman, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Other top advisers said they had doubts whether Dean would ever work directly on Kerry's behalf this year. They suggested the Grossman was trying to curry favor with Kerry.
Officials said they are discussing ways to use Dean's network to help elect Democrats to Congress, action that effectively, but not directly, support Kerry's agenda as president. Scores of campaigns aides were making plans to leave their jobs after Tuesday.
"This is a delicate balancing act that has to be struck for Howard Dean," Grossman said. "His supporters, they will not want him to give up and will want to carry out the cause. His name is on the ballot in many states whether he campaigns or is less engaged. The fact is Howard Dean will do everything possible to help the nominee. He will do nothing to undercut the nominee's success."
The advisers sought to square their perceptions with Dean's public remarks.
"When Howard Dean says he's not going to quit, what he means is the battle to restore democracy and citizen participation is long-term and he's not going to quit on that battle," Grossman said.