BURLINGTON, Vt. — Howard Dean abandoned his Democratic presidential bid on Wednesday, but the former Vermont governor urged his followers "to transform the Democratic Party and to change our country."
"I am no longer actively pursuing the presidency," Dean told a crowd of cheering, flag-waving supporters. "We will, however, continue to build a new organization using our enormous grass-roots network to continue the effort to transform the Democratic Party and to change our country."
Dean sounded a theme of party unity, saying, "The bottom line is that we must beat George W. Bush in November, whatever it takes."
He ruled out running as a third-party or independent candidate, but he also said he and his supporters would continue to be a force for change: "We are not going away. We're staying together unified, all of us." He vowed to "continue to campaign for change," working to keep his issues alive.
‘The fight ... can and must continue’
"There is enormous institutional pressure in Washington against change, in the Democratic Party against change," Dean said. "Yet, you have already started to change the party and together we have transformed this race. The fight that we began can and must continue."
As Dean spoke, he was flanked by his wife, Judy, a physician whose rare appearance on the campaign trail had been the subject of discussion of whether she was a proper political wife. Dean drew cheers when he saluted her for starting the debate in the country "about whether a woman needs to gaze adoringly at her husband or follow her own career."
Dean's free-fall from the spot of top contender for the Democratic nomination began in January with poor showings in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary and culminated in Tuesday's loss in Wisconsin's primary. In all, Dean was winless in 17 contests.
Earlier, Dean campaign sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, told NBC News that Dean had a lengthy conversation on Tuesday night with John Edwards, the lone remaining credible challenger to front-runner John Kerry. Dean did not reach an agreement to endorse Edwards, who has been actively seeking Dean's backing, they said.
Dean has said Edwards would be a stronger candidate against President Bush than Kerry, whom he has denounced as beholden to special interests.
The Associated Press quoted two party officials on Wednesday as saying that the shape of the new effort to keep Dean's organization intact was still to be determined, but that Dean would eventually support the Democratic Party’s nominee. One official said Dean would help elect Democrats to Congress in the fall.
The officials, also speaking on condition of anonymity, indicated that Dean likely would not make an endorsement before the convention.
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A well-beaten third in Wisconsin
Dean, who finished a well-beaten third in Tuesday's Wisconsin primary, exits the active race certain in the knowledge that he will live on in the annals of U.S. politics for shattering Democratic fund-raising records with $41 million collected in a single year — as well as on late-night television and Internet parodies for a high-octane concession speech on the night of the Iowa caucuses that he’s likely never to live down. Video: Campaign over
Once a long-shot candidate, the Internet phenomenon filled his campaign coffers and attracted thousands of supporters through the spring and summer, pushing him to the head of the crowded Democratic field.
The leader in national polls — and more important state polls in the first states of Iowa and New Hampshire — Dean seemed poised to win the nomination in a runaway.
Historians will judge, but Dean and his devoted supporters are convinced that they more than anyone else defined the Democratic debate through his unwavering criticism of President Bush, the Iraq war and Democrats who helped Bush push his agenda through Congress.
“Because of your work, we have already written the Democratic Party platform,” Dean declared Monday night at an exuberant Madison rally that harkened to the heady days when he was more focused on a running mate than exiting the race.
For that latter part of 2003 and the early days of this year, Dean seemed untouchable, emerging from miscues and gaffes with yet another fund-raising record or high-profile endorsement.
640,000 signed up via Web site
Nothing could dissuade the 640,000 people who joined his campaign via his Web site. They contributed $41 million last year and then pumped millions more this year into a campaign that was faltering even before Iowans dealt the first blow.
Dean was the most unlikely of heroes for this movement of liberals, disaffected voters and youth. Born to wealth on New York’s Park Avenue, his Yale pedigree was much closer to Bush’s than the working people to whom he said he was giving voice.
As he left the Vermont governor’s office in January 2003 after nearly 12 years, Dean had a presidential campaign staff of a half-dozen and about $157,000 in the bank.
But one of those staffers had found a then-obscure Internet organizing site, known as MeetUp.com. Dean became the first political candidate to sign up for it and suddenly thousands of people were finding him, organizing local events and fund-raisers and slowly making him a force.
His blunt speaking style and full-throated opposition to the Iraq war at a time when almost all of the other major contenders were trying to explain their support for it gave him an edge.
Even then he was still little more than an afterthought, but he had raised enough money to begin competing and was relentless in appearing everywhere he could. By February last year, he had begun focusing his criticism not just on Bush but on his fellow Democrats, accusing them of being too timid in fighting for the party’s core principles.
Borrowing a line from the late Sen. Wellstone
“I’m Howard Dean and I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” Dean declared at a Democratic National Committee meeting in Washington last year that caught everyone’s attention. The line had been a staple of the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone.
Dean tapped into Democrats’ nagging belief that their national leaders had lost their way and were too blindly allowing Bush and the Republicans to set the agenda.
But even at that early stage there were signs of Dean’s penchant for speaking before all the facts were straight. He apologized to rival John Edwards for mischaracterizing the North Carolina senator’s position on the Iraq war, and offered his regrets to foe Bob Graham for dismissing him as a second-tier candidate.
Each misstep, though, seemed only to embolden Dean and his supporters.
After Dean’s performance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last June was widely panned, supporters decided to prove the establishment wrong, raising more than $3 million over the Internet in just a week.
Suddenly, Dean appeared to be the man to beat. The “People-Powered Howard” movement had begun and the money kept rolling in.
Fund-raising success made him a target
It got his opponents’ attention, too, and they stepped up the criticism. Dean stirred controversy in November for saying he wanted “to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks,” then quieted the uproar by winning the endorsement of two of the country’s largest unions — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union.
Dean then snagged one of the biggest prizes — the backing of former Vice President Al Gore, the nominee in 2000.
Days before the Iowa caucuses, 4-year-old tapes surfaced of Dean telling Canadian television that caucuses are dominated by special interests. He doused that firestorm quickly by winning the endorsement of Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin.
While it always appeared that Dean could emerge unscathed from the missteps, ultimately, they added up and voters decided to go with a familiar Washington face.
By the time the Iowa votes were counted, Dean had finished a distant third behind Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and Edwards. It was the first election loss of his 20-year career. Then Dean ended his full-throttle concession speech with a scream that has played endlessly on the Internet and late-night talk shows.
While he struggled to remain in the Democratic presidential race, Dean also lost a court skirmish at home Tuesday. A judge ruled in a lawsuit that he could not claim executive privilege and seal for 10 years a broad swath of his gubernatorial records.
NBC News' Felix Schein, the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.