WASHINGTON – A humbled Howard Dean, saying "I have my warts. I sometimes say things that get me in trouble," argued Thursday that voters will see through his flaws and rally to his troubled presidential candidacy.
"I'm not blow-dried. I'm not coached," Dean said as he sought to recover from his third-place Iowa finish and mounting concern over his scream-filled speech on caucus night. "I don't look at polls and even if I did they didn't do me any good in Iowa."
Dean fell 5 to 10 percentage points behind John Kerry in the most recent polls for the New Hampshire primary (search), set for Tuesday.
Strolling the stage of a renovated opera house Thursday, Dean made light several times of the political blunder, telling supporters with a raspy voice, "I still have not recovered my voice from my screeching in Iowa."
Dean's guttural yells Monday night punctuated his poor finish and raised questions about his political judgment and temperament. Even his own adviser believe the performance damaged his standing in New Hampshire.
Dean sought to put the best face on the fallout, telling a crowd of several hundred that voters will see through his faults.
"Look, I'm not a perfect person. I have my warts. I sometimes say things that get me in trouble. I wear suits that are cheap. But I say what I think and I believe what I say, and I'm willing to say things that are not be popular but ordinary people know are right," he said. "In other words, I lead with my heart and not my head. That's the only chance we have against George Bush."
The remarks reflected how high the stakes have become for Dean. He began the year 25 percentage points ahead of the pack in New Hampshire polls, the clear front-runner overall, and is suddenly talking with vague hope about keeping his campaign alive.
"This has been a great campaign and you know what you're going to do on Tuesday is make this campaign continue all the way" until the Democratic nomination, "and then we're going on to election day, and then one year from Jan. 20, which was a day or so ago, we're going to change this country," he said.
Dean's lead in New Hampshire polls dissolved in the run-up to Iowa, where his miscues and criticism from his rivals drove up his unfavorability ratings. Sen. John Kerry (search) of Massachusetts, who won Iowa, quickly closed the gap this week.
Dean, who said he's fighting off a cold, spent the night at his home in nearby Burlington, Vt., where he and his advisers continued to polish their comeback strategy. They've decided to tone down his rhetoric and focus on his record as a five-term governor of Vermont, arguing that he is the one candidate who has produced reforms instead of just talked about them.
It is the same tactic used by President Bush after he was defeated here in the 2000 GOP primary by Sen. John McCain (search), a self-styled political reformer. Bush left New Hampshire with a new slogan pointing to his record in Texas, "reformer with results."
Dean did not mention his rivals by name, but the point was not lost on the 500 or so supporters when he said, "I'm campaigning against a system where politicians will say anything just to get elected."
He said America needs change, "but we're not going to do that by having somebody from Washington."
Dean is running against three senators — Kerry, John Edwards of North Carolina and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut — as well as retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark of Arkansas.
In a lengthy question-and-answer session, one voter told Dean to take care of his voice by drinking hot tea and speaking more from the diaphragm. "Don't carry so much tension," the man said.
Dean, his campaign on the line, laughed, placed his hand on his stomach and said in a low voice, "Speaking from the diaphragm works really well."