Still wearing a “Hawkeyes for Dean,” T-shirt, Ryan Taugher is uncertain of where to throw his support for his hero, former Vermont governor Howard Dean (search), who dropped out of the Democratic presidential race almost two weeks ago.

“I believe very strongly in the need to return President Bush to Crawford, Texas. However, I also very strongly believe in the need to vote for a candidate, which I can do so with full confidence and faith, not by holding my nose and choosing the lesser of two undesirable choices,” said the sophomore at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa.

Deaniacs are a wild card in this year’s presidential race. All of the remaining Democratic contenders, particularly John Edwards (search), have been battling for Dean’s supporters. But a larger question is can Dean, who has promised to support the eventual Democratic nominee, keep his supporters in the party and prevent them from either staying home on Election Day or defecting to independent Ralph Nader (search).

After Nader threw his hat into the presidential ring recently, Dean warned his supporters of the importance of staying within the Democratic Party.

“Those who truly want America's leaders to stand up to the corporate special interests and build a better country for working people should recognize that, in 2004, a vote for Ralph Nader is, plain and simple, a vote to re-elect George W. Bush. We can win only if we are united,” Dean said in a statement last week.

As a progressive, Dennis Kucinich (search) has been appealing to Dean supporters. Pushing even harder is Edwards, who is hoping to bolster his flagging effort by praising Dean on the campaign trail.

“One person that I want to honor is a man who I think brought so much to the this presidential campaign. Somebody who brought so many new people, particularly young people to the Democratic Party and to the democratic process. Somebody who I believe has changed the face of American politics forever. Somebody who I have great, personal affection for and enormous respect for. My friend, Governor Howard Dean,” Edwards said at a rally in Houston last week.

Deaniacs have been abuzz on the Web with opinions on where they should now throw their support.

Eric Schmeltzer, deputy director of Dean's New York campaign, launched a Web site last week called DeaniacsForEdwards.com. In advance of New York’s primary on Tuesday, Edwards has been picking up support from a number of Dean groups, including student groups at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Cornell University and a group of disabilities activists called Disabled for Dean. The North Carolina senator also received the backing of two co-founders of Generation Dean, the Dean campaign’s national youth outreach organization.

Taugher backed Nader in 2000 and doesn’t rule out voting for him again this time around.

“I am still struggling with my decision," he said. "While I understand and support Governor Dean’s decision to drop out of the race, the reason I supported him so passionately was because he was the outsider speaking from his heart, and I don’t know if I can listen to him when he tells [us] to support the eventual nominee.”

Taugher added that most people with whom he speaks subscribe to an “anybody but Bush” philosophy.

In the general election, most Dean supporters will follow this line of argument and back the Democratic nominee, said Ed Kilgore, policy director of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (search).

“The vast majority of them are primarily focused on defeating Bush,” he said. 

Calling it a “high-stakes” election, Kilgore said most voters were attracted to Dean not because of his anti-war stance, but because he was tough on Bush. Those voters will remain engaged and energized for whoever is the ultimate Democratic nominee.

“What I don’t see is any huge sense of unhappiness. By and large, the Democratic electorate feels pretty good about the field, and that’s true about a lot of Dean people,” Kilgore said.

Most Dean supporters will stay in the party, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics (search).

“They would vote for any of those Democrats. They don’t care which one. Whenever I talk to Democratic crowds, it’s anybody but Bush, and it’s intense, and that’s what puts Bush in danger of getting defeated. More than any single thing, they just hate him. They loathe him,” Sabato said.

Although Dean supporters may not be quite as energized as they would be if their man were the nominee, their dislike of Bush will mean a good Deaniac turnout at the polls, he said.

Assuming Kerry will be the nominee, "You'll have easily 80 percent of the Dean voters backing Kerry. Some will stay home, and others will vote for Nader. I'm estimating the [remaining] 20 percent mainly not voting. Only a handful for Nader, maybe 5 percent of the Deanies for Nader," Sabato said.

Although Taugher, the Cornell College student, is unsure whether he will turn out for the eventual Democratic nominee, but says the anti-Bush sentiment is strong. 

"My sense of other Dean supporters in the area is somewhat different from my own. Most people I have talked to about this seem to subscribe faithfully to the 'anybody but Bush' philosophy. The energy which Dean has built during his campaign will continue to remain a powerful force for George Bush to reckon with," he said.

On the other hand, Suzette Astley, a Dean delegate to the Linn County convention in Iowa, said she is skeptical about Edwards in part because of his support for the war in Iraq, but she will back the eventual Democratic nominee..

“I think it is important for Dean supporters to stay involved to have some influence on the Democratic Party and the eventual nominee,” she said.

"Most Dean supporters with whom I am in contact still support Dean and his principles and will remain in that position until there is a Democratic nominee. At that point, most of us will vote Democratic in November. Only a very small proportion, I think, will vote for a third party candidate such as Nader as a protest vote.”