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Dean Merchandisers Fear Going Out of Business

Merchandisers who scored big by hawking wares relating to Howard Dean's insurgent candidacy could face difficult times if their moneymaker drops out of the race.

Two companies — Parody Productions (search), which produces a deck of cards in which Dean is the high, low and trump cards, and Playpolitics.org, which manufactures Deanie Babies, small silk-screened beanbags with Dean's image — recognize that the Wisconsin race could change their business landscapes.

Playpolitics.org founders Rob Davis and Adam Wirtzfield acknowledged that if Dean drops out of the race after Tuesday's primary in Wisconsin, they’ll probably have to shut down operations.

Davis and Wirtzfield have been paying about a half-dozen American workers in Minnesota $12 to $18 per hour — "a livable wage manufacturing job," according to Davis — to produce the Deanie Babies (search), which include the Dr. Deanie; Iowa Deanie; Minnesota Deanie, which is the diminutive Dean as Paul Bunyan with Babe the blue ox at his side; and, of course, the classic Deanie, in shirtsleeves and tie.

Playpolitics.org also produced about 25 Hou-Deanies — Dean as escape artist in chains — and I-Dream-of-Deanies, which portray Dean as a genie. Davis and Wirtzfield held on to the specially made Hou-Deanies to give to friends and family.

Throughout the campaign, the business partners have been traveling to some of Dean's larger venues to sell their wares, along with an enormous Deanie-baby suit that someone wears to advertise the Deanie Babies.

After a pancake breakfast in January, Dean paused to talk with the vendors and pose for pictures with the giant Deanie. But now that Dean's events are smaller, reflecting a slide since the peak of his popularity, the two are finding it harder to unload the collectible toys.

Despite the reduced sales and the drop in price, Eric Burdette, one of the co-founders of Parody Productions, said his company won't be folding if Dean bails out.

"We think that the cards will still be fun," said Burdette, who hopes to continue selling souvenirs to lingering Deaniacs.

Burdette and business partner Dave Krikorian have at least one fan. Dean himself has followed in the tradition of Bill Clinton, who enjoyed a good game of Hearts while on the campaign trail in 1992. The candidate passes the long hours on airplanes and buses in part by teaching the press corps how to play "Oh, Hell" with his personalized set of cards.

Dean, I have learned after a hand of Hearts, is much better at Oh, Hell, which he plays without appearing fazed by his own disembodied visage on every card.

On the deck, Dean appears on all the aces, kings and twos. The deck even has a "Hero" card, an extra card that is usually reserved for poker. Burdette said the Hero card is meant to be the ultimate trump, but generally, members of the press throw the Hero card out of the deck before beginning any games.

Other faces on the cards depict political and media figures, including Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell. President Bush and Vice President Cheney are the jokers.

Media also make the cut — the deck includes Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, Oliver North, Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes.

As we pass our time heading from town to town, one reporter invented a game of poker that can only be played with the Dean deck, a seven-card stud, in which all Deans are wild. The last time the game was played, five kings won in a hand that included four wild cards.

Parody has printed about 25,000 decks and sold about 13,000 to 14,000 decks on the Internet, at rallies around the country and through bookstores.

At the Borders bookstore in Burlington, Vt., where the cards retail for $10.99, the cashier observed that during the holidays, the decks sold more quickly than they could be stocked.

"They made great stocking-stuffers," she said.

Since then, however, sales have dropped off. It wasn't clear whether that was a result of the end of the shopping season or Dean’s falling fortunes in the polls.

The original price of the cards, as advertised on the Internet, was $7.99, but now Parody is holding a "last stand sale." Online, the cards have been reduced to $5 per deck.

Burdette and Krikorian peddled the cards in New Hampshire and Iowa. They say now they are "hoping Wisconsin votes Dean on."