Braun was largely ignored by black leaders and raised only a few hundred thousand dollars. While she did nab endorsements from the National Organization for Women and the National Women’s Political Caucus, her campaign gained little media coverage. Nonetheless, her presence meant that, for the first time, a Democratic presidential race would feature two major black candidates. Would black voters side with one or the other, even if black leaders didn't?
Another question took on urgency as the campaign unfolded: Could Howard Dean, the governor of Vermont, make inroads with black voters?
His campaign had begun as an afterthought, but by the early days of 2004, he'd become an utterly unlikely front-runner, powered by his anti-war stance and backed by an emerging class of liberal bloggers. Dean had no previous experience courting black votes, though, and was seen as potentially vulnerable once the race moved on from Iowa and New Hampshire. His rise also rankled Sharpton, especially as Dean began reeling in endorsements from black leaders — including Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., his estranged mentor’s son.
When the Jackson endorsement was announced, Sharpton released a statement: "Any so-called African-American leader that would endorse Dean despite his anti-black record is mortgaging the future of our struggle for civil rights and social justice, to back a candidate whose record on issues of critical importance to us is no better than that of George W. Bush.” (“Sharpton Calls Dean’s Agenda Anti-Black," Brian Faler, The Washington Post; Oct. 29, 2003.)
Dean stepped into controversy by arguing that he could beat Bush by, in part, being "the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks." Sharpton tore into him, saying at a debate that Dean "sounded more like Stonewall Jackson than Jesse Jackson."
The first test ended up coming in majority black Washington, which scheduled its primary for mid-January, jumping ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire. The contest was nonbinding — no delegates at stake, just bragging rights — and was intended to highlight the issue of voting rights for the district. But the early date violated Democratic National Committee rules, and most of the candidates demanded that their names be removed from the ballot. Sharpton and Braun didn't, though, and neither did Dean, who refrained from active campaigning while hoping a strong showing would demonstrate appeal that crossed racial lines.
Dean did pull out a win, with 43 percent of the vote, but Sharpton wasn't far behind with 34 percent. There were no exit polls, but a precinct analysis suggested that Dean’s victory was keyed by massive margins in heavily white areas of Northwest D.C. and that he lagged far behind Sharpton in predominantly black neighborhoods (“D.C.’s White Voters, Not Black, Made Difference for Dean,” Craig Timberg, The Washington Post, Jan. 16, 2004.)
Braun, who gained just 12 percent in the D.C. primary, dropped out the next day and immediately endorsed Dean. The Democratic race then took an abrupt turn when, less than a week later, Dean finished a distant third in Iowa, losing to Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts by a 2-to-1 margin. Months of momentum evaporated for Dean as Kerry rapidly gained support, following up his Iowa performance with a New Hampshire win. Dean pressed on, but his campaign was in free-fall.