MILWAUKEE – His top advisers says it's time to go. A defiant Howard Dean (search) says he's staying, despite a zero-for-16 record in Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses. Unresolved for the one-time front-runner is how he proceeds from here.
Polls point to another win for John Kerry (search) on Tuesday in Wisconsin, which would give the four-term Massachusetts senator 15 victories, the lion's share of delegates and a near-lock on the nomination. The same surveys look bleak for Dean.
Advisers to Dean are urging him to abandon the race if he loses Wisconsin and consider several options, including dropping from the race outright, suspending his campaign or at least acknowledging Kerry's accomplishment and redirect his own efforts. They said Dean was all but certain to effectively bow out in some way.
But the former Vermont governor, in an interview with The Associated Press, said Sunday he is staying in the race — "We are not bowing out" — although he added, "The forum we will use to stay in the race remains to be seen. Period. Anybody who says anything to the contrary has misspoken."
In recent days, Dean has signaled he is considering scaling back his campaign or reshaping it, not withdrawing, if he loses Tuesday.
Campaign chairman Steve Grossman said if Dean stumbles in Wisconsin 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."
Campaign 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 moment, emotions and a fighting instinct are holding sway.
But the signs on the campaign trail — huddled meetings involving aides, the absence of a formal schedule beyond Tuesday and dozens of empty chairs at events such as one in Racine, Wis., on Saturday — indicate the end is near for a candidacy that just six weeks ago was first in polls, fund raising and momentum.
A good chunk of the $41 million Dean raised last year has been spent, although aides and the candidate insist there's still enough money on hand to continue toward the 10-state contests on March 2.
One possibility is for Dean to suspend active campaigning without formally withdrawing from the race. Some campaign aides said, however, that the shift would probably be more subtle because Dean does not want to quit. The question then would become how Dean could carry on or shift his supporters to a new cause or another candidate.
Many in the campaign say it would be difficult to persuade Dean's true believers, many attracted through the Internet, to throw their support behind a new cause such as electing more Democrats to Congress. They might be more eager if Dean was doing the asking.
Aides agree with Dean's argument that he has changed the tenor of the discussion, returning Democrats to their principles and giving them confidence to challenge President Bush. That's a major reason why Dean does not want to drop out and why he intends to maintain some kind of organization.
Campaign manager Roy Neel did not dispute assertions that Dean would give up his presidential bid, but cautioned that Dean was 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 (Sunday night) and the Wisconsin primary Tuesday night," Neel said.
Neel also posted a message on the campaign's blog assuring supporters that Dean wasn't giving up.
Dean said on "Fox News Sunday" that he still had a lot to contribute to the Democratic Party and so did his supporters.
"We've come too far in such a short period of time to give this up," he said. "Change takes a long time. ... But I am determined to change this country. We've started to change the Democratic Party."