By contributor
updated 1/22/2004 7:48:32 PM ET 2004-01-23T00:48:32

Like the Challenger explosion, the faltering of Howard Dean’s campaign will occupy crash-site investigators for years, maybe decades. How did a guy who rose to front-runner with such a powerful message — the war is wrong, the political system needs profound reform — get so sidetracked between Thanksgiving and the Super Bowl?

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Here are some of my answers, on matters profound and picayune, personal and philosophical:

Private guy
Dean is an unusual character in politics. He thinks it is his right to guard his privacy in the most public line of work. When he rose to prominence he didn’t realize that he needed to develop a narrative to explain, in detail, why he was who he was as a public man. By the time he started giving interviews to “People” and Diane Sawyer it was too late. He’s a doctor. Isn’t there a positive message in his practice somewhere? We still don’t know.

Paradoxically, as private as he is, Dean is capable — perhaps too capable — of showing emotion. When I interviewed him for Newsweek last year, he broke down in tears when I asked him about his lost brother. I had never seen a politician do this: He turned beet-red and sobbed. He told me he had had counseling. It was touching, but, in retrospect, a harbinger of his angry reaction to his loss in Iowa — a fateful moment to say the least.

Slideshow: On the campaign trail

No sense of humor
Dean is in many ways an unassuming guy, but he doesn’t like criticism, and can’t stand being teased. I had dinner with him in late 2002, just as he was gearing up to run. He told me that he wasn’t a typical liberal, and by way of explanation said that he had supported civil unions, but also had never supported gun control. Being the jerk that I am, I said: “Well, governor, I guess you have the gay hunter vote locked up.” (It was a fresh joke at the time.) His response was an icy stare. Maybe it wasn’t that funny. But he couldn’t fake tolerance for sophomoric humor — and isn’t that required in politics?

He's never lost
My friend Bill Greider, the eminent author, pointed out to me the other day that Dean reacted the way he did after Iowa because he had never lost an election. So he never had to examine what he had done wrong in politics. Failure is a good thing, in politics as in life.

Trapped in insurgency
Dean and his advisers knew last fall that he had to somehow move beyond the outsider’s first phase of his campaign to something broader and more comprehensive by way of a message. He and his aides have deep convictions about what’s wrong with The System, political and economic. But they had trouble translating that sweeping critique into a coherent set of policy proposals. He went back and forth about taxes. His message on health care was heart-felt, and his record in Vermont a good one. But after the war in Iraq became the central focus of his campaign, the rest of the message drifted away.

Hypnotized by process
For months, the central message of the campaign was the campaign itself: its success on the Internet, its blogs, its meetups. There was too much self-satisfied discussion of just how much money was being raised. It was: We deserve to win because we are going to win.

Saddam capture
It’s not that voters thought, or think, that the war on terrorism had been won by the capture of Saddam Hussein. And many would probably agree that we are not really safer as a nation. But he was so grudging about the event as to seem churlish — and, to sophisticated Democratic voters, too willfully defiant to make him a trusted figure.

On "Hardball" last week, my colleague Chris Matthews kept demanding to know why Dean had spent so much time acquiring and advertising the endorsements of what he called “yesterday’s men” — Al Gore, Bill Bradley, Tom Harkin and Jimmy Carter. It was a very good question. The parade of endorsements ran counter to Dean’s main message, which is: I am something different, not the usual political politician.

Copycat rivals
The other candidates have appropriated Dean’s outsider themes. It remains to be seen if they believe them, if they embody them, or if they can sell them. But they all sound like Howard Dean now. They’re all talking passionately about special interests now. He won, in a way, but the victory may belong to someone else in this crazy race.

Howard Fineman is Newsweek’s chief political correspondent and an NBC News analyst.

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