BURLINGTON, Vt. – On the day after a presidential campaign ends, the candidate’s headquarters has the eerily familiar feel of the last day of school, after exams are over.
After so many months of frenzied activity and steadfast purpose, there is a surreal sense of uncertainty, a desire by the people who have spent 18 to 22 hours a day together for months on end to hold on to the last few moments.
Shortly after 1:00 p.m., on Thursday afternoon, the day after Howard Dean (search) declared he would no longer actively seek the presidency, it was picture time.
The candidate trudged through the snow next to the parking lot toward a group of staffers and volunteers standing behind a huge Howard Dean sign. Dean had shed his candidate’s garb, a dark gray suit he’d worn nearly every day since late January, for the clothing of the ordinary American of his speeches. He donned jeans and a tattered, faded green shirt that by its appearance certainly predated his presidential candidacy — and perhaps even his first gubernatorial candidacy.
Dean posed for more than a few pictures as staffers threw snowballs at him, hitting him twice. Despite his reputation for being quick-tempered, Dean laughed and endured the barrage until someone yelled, "How many times do you have to be attacked before you respond?"
He then succumbed to the scuffle and lobbed snowballs back.
An aide kept reminding him, "You have a conference call at 1:30," but it didn’t seem to matter.
Finally, Dean walked toward the entrance of the building, and joked about one of the first things he was going to tackle post-candidacy: "This," he said, grabbing his stomach ruefully. The former candidate has put on 15 pounds since the beginning of his campaign.
Later in the day, the front office at HQ bustled, filled with people perusing boxes of bat pens, in honor of the baseball bats used to symbolize Dean’s online fundraising efforts. Campaign buttons and mugs sat on a table with a row of Dean for America baseball caps, a free-for-all for anyone who wanted a last-minute souvenir.
By the door, a printer sat on the floor, with some other office supplies waiting to be carted away. A line formed for Dean, who good-naturedly dispensed career advice to his soon-to-be former staffers and volunteers as he signed baseball caps, posters and the magazine covers that had once made his candidacy seem unstoppable. One man even gave to Dean to autograph two photographs from Dean’s infamous "I have a scream" speech in Iowa; Dean laughed and signed them.
Standing in front of a door with a hand-lettered poster that read "You stole our hearts," Dean looked at all the paraphernalia.
"I don’t know what we’ll do with this stuff, put it on E-bay or something," he wondered aloud. After the well-wishers had dispersed, Dean ambled away to another meeting.
Throughout the headquarters, TV monitors with the news networks were still on, but no one was paying much attention. The remains of a catered pasta lunch grew cold in one of the conference rooms. Some of the staff packed their belongings into cardboard boxes and others sat at their desks to wrap things up or enjoy each other’s company and absorb the end of the campaign.
"The only thing harder than working on a presidential campaign is losing a presidential campaign," said Dean spokesman Jay Carson (search), who cut his campaign teeth on Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign in 2000. Carson was more prepared for the fall this time.
"One day, everyone wants to talk to you. The next day no one wants to. By 10:30 a.m., there would be 18 voicemails on my cell phone. That was three days ago. Today, I left my cell phone downstairs by accident and worried about the calls I’d missed," he said. Retrieving his cell phone shortly afterward, Carson found he hadn’t missed a single call.
Carson e-mailed his Burlington landlord on Tuesday, the day of the Wisconsin primary.
"It appears I will no longer be employed in Burlington. Sorry about the late notice," he wrote. Carson left for Washington, D.C., on Thursday, though he will stay on part-time to help Dean with any lingering press needs the former candidate may have.
This was the first presidential campaign for Karen Hicks (search), Dean’s New Hampshire state director, and the loss hit her hard. She wanted to take six weeks off, but Dean implied he might still need her.
"You’d better just make it three weeks," he told her.
Hicks said she will compromise at four or five weeks "to do yoga, and write about what we did in New Hampshire so I can make some sense of it for myself."
The inevitable thought for any of Dean’s staff is, what to do next?
"I’m broke," declared Brent Colburn, Dean’s research director. "I need to be getting paid by April 1st."
Colburn has already scheduled meetings in Washington, D.C. Matt Vogel, the press travel director who came from Wall Street to work on the campaign, was offered a job back on Wall Street as a defense acquisitions analyst.
"Instead of bringing America together, I’d be bringing defense contractors together," he quipped. Vogel turned the job down, and for now his plans extend as far as New Orleans and Mardi Gras (search) to party with some friends from the campaign.
In the Burlington airport, Doug Thornell, Dean’s traveling press secretary, spent five hours, waiting for an open flight out. He used the time to call friends and family to let them know he’s coming back after two months away. The time apart may have been too long
"I can’t remember my mom’s work number," he said.
Thornell said what he really wants is a ticket to New Orleans to join the Mardi Gras celebration. But three months on a campaign payroll hasn’t left him with much cash to spare.
Fortuitously, as Thornell prepared to board his plane home to Washington, D.C., U.S. Airways made an announcement: it had overbooked the Washington flight and was giving a free ticket to any passenger who would agree to take a later flight.
Thornell smiled and approached the counter. His return home would be delayed, but at least he had somewhere to go.