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Iowa will test Dean's base

On the eve of the first critical votes of 2004, Democrat Howard Dean's campaign is showing obvious signs of nervousness.
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For most of 2003, Howard Dean's campaign showed some of the qualities of a Silicon Valley enterprise in the boom days of the 1990s -- an innovative political machine that was all about the promise of something new -- new voters, new money and a new politics for a demoralized Democratic Party.

But on the eve of the first critical votes of 2004, Dean's campaign is showing obvious signs of nervousness. His campaign is now less about cyber-innovation and more about delivering support from Democratic voters, and the question that will be answered in the days ahead is whether Dean has built his campaign on a solid foundation or one that will fracture if there is a setback or defeat.

The turn of the year has brought more intense engagement from voters in Iowa and New Hampshire and, with that, an inevitable tightening in the polls. Dean's once-commanding lead in New Hampshire has begun to dissipate in the face of a surge by retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark. In Iowa, Dean is engaged in a spirited four-way contest against Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and the rising candidacies of Sens. John F. Kerry (Mass.) and John Edwards (N.C.).

Those shifts in sentiment are not unexpected, but some past front-runners -- George W. Bush in 2000, for example -- have braced themselves with establishment political support to sustain them through the rapids of the early contests on the nomination calendar. Dean, for all his endorsements from powerful unions and prominent Democrats such as former vice president Al Gore and Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa), remains a candidate dependent on a grass-roots army that is untested in the rigors of primaries and caucuses and unpredictable if things go badly.

Dean advisers dismiss talk that Dean has stalled or is in any real trouble, while acknowledging that they have lost ground in New Hampshire and are fighting for a victory in Iowa. "We've got a tough fight in Iowa and New Hampshire, and it's going to be a tough fight beyond that," said Dean pollster Paul Maslin. "What's going to sustain us beyond that is what Howard Dean has built. That is going to be our shield."

Campaign manager Joe Trippi said he is so confident of the base upon which Dean has built his campaign that he believes a loss in Iowa will bring a redoubled intensity among those who have sustained the campaign through the past year. Victories here and in New Hampshire, he said, will bring an explosion of money and support.

Trippi and others point to larger-than-expected turnouts for caucus training sessions here this week and an event in Muscatine over the weekend at which almost half of those who attended either had never participated in the caucuses before or were not even registered to vote.

If that interest in Dean translates into a big turnout at the caucuses Monday, then Dean may be on a track to beat his rivals here and head into New Hampshire revitalized. A loss here, after all the magazine covers and the buildup about his campaign, will intensify questions about whether he is the right candidate to lead the party against President Bush.

Dean's challenge grows out of the unusual nature of his front-running status. He has never held a commanding edge in national polls, as some past front-runners have, nor has he been the pick of the elected officials in his party. He earned his standing at the head of the pack by raising about $40 million last year and by exciting Democratic activists in a way none of his rivals could manage.

Natural cycle
But the acceleration of his support has slowed in the past month, in the face of attacks from his rivals, scrutiny from the media, and his own mistakes and controversial statements. After months of forward movement, Dean appears to be struggling to preserve what he already has earned rather than expanding his support.

His advisers argue that this is a natural part of the cycle of the nomination process and say his successes have been undervalued. In New Hampshire, they say, Dean's rise so damaged Kerry's campaign that the Massachusetts senator abandoned the state in hopes of reviving his candidacy in Iowa, of all places. Gephardt, they argue, won the Iowa caucuses in 1988 and began this campaign as the clear favorite to win them again. A competitive race five days out, they say, is proof enough that Dean has done remarkable things.

"What have their campaigns become -- an anti-Howard Dean press release every single day of the week," Maslin said. "That's the only thing they can do."

But Dean, too, has turned negative here in Iowa, resurrecting the issue of the war in Iraq, attacking Gephardt, Kerry and Edwards, who all supported the resolution authorizing Bush to go to war. And he has begun to throw elbows at Clark in New Hampshire.

Dean's closing argument heading toward the first contests is that he alone has built a campaign that can beat Bush and the Republicans, one that can attract new voters and enough money to run competitively against the best-funded incumbent in history.

His rivals point not to his campaign -- they have obvious respect for what he has built -- but to the candidate himself, and they question whether he has the personal qualities, temperament and vision to lead the party in November. His performance in the days ahead, and the intensity of those who have powered his rise in the Democratic race, will answer the questions his rivals are posing.