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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 February, 2004, 19:13 GMT
Campaign column: Dean's legacy

By Tom Carver
BBC correspondent in Washington

Howard Dean was the accidental politician.

He was like an ordinary voter who turned up one night to hear a candidate at his local gym and - frustrated by the same-as-usual politics - got up onto the stage and grabbed the microphone himself.

Howard Dean
Dean's style of campaigning attracted an army of supporters
That was how his army of supporters saw him. As one of them.

This time last year, millions of American Democrats were feeling angry and frustrated at the war in Iraq.

Their leaders in Congress seemed incapable of standing up to the Republicans.

People were resigned to Bush the war leader getting a second term.

Then suddenly this doctor from Vermont appeared, articulating a clear unequivocal opposition to both George Bush and the war.

He said what Democrats thought. In a plain no-nonsense way. And in the space of a few weeks, he went from zero to hero.

Howard Dean's greatest legacy to the Democratic Party is that he gave it backbone and courage to stand up to the Bush White House.

Twelve months ago, the party leadership was still mesmerised by the Clintonian idea of centrism and triangulation.

They believed that elections were won by stealing your opponents' clothes. Mentally speaking, they were fighting the last war.

New style

But Howard Dean sensed the grassroots had had enough of that. Democrats were embarrassed by George Bush. They hated the idea of wearing his clothes. They wanted someone who was willing to be different.

And Dean did that. By taking a stand, he gave his more electable rivals the political cover they needed to do the same. And they will always be in his debt for that.

John Kerry with wife Teresa
John Kerry is leading the way - having won 14 of 16 states
Dean also introduced a new style of political campaigning.

I remember visiting one of Dean's headquarters in Virginia last November.

On a bitterly cold night, 30 people had left their homes to spend the evening together in a windowless basement. The place had the slightly heady atmosphere of an evangelical prayer gathering.

At a long table, they wrote handwritten letters to fellow Democrats hundreds of miles away in Iowa. This stunt epitomised the highly unusual Dean strategy.

First of all, it was orchestrated through the internet. Via the Dean website, the campaign focused thousands of disparate people on this single task with huge effect.

Secondly, the campaign did not try to coral or dictate from above like most political operations.

The Dean website displayed a rough template of the kind of letter people should write, but supporters were free to add their own comments.

Deaniacs were encouraged to express themselves in their own way. They organised their own meetings - like the one that night - and were free to set their own agenda.

The idea of a handwritten letter epitomised the quirky counter-culture. "Just because we use the internet doesn't mean we've lost our humanity," it seemed to say.

It was also shrewd campaigning. Whilst the torrent of flyers and circulars that Iowans were being deluged with at the time almost certainly went straight into most people's wastepaper baskets, who wouldn't open a handwritten letter?

The only trouble was - in the end, these techniques didn't deliver the votes.


Dean campaigned relentlessly in Iowa - he was the only politician to visit every one of Iowa's far flung counties - but he still came in a distant third.

Howard Dean's astonishing glide path back to earth is due largely to his failure to move beyond his original message.

Former Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean
Dean's decision to pull out looked inevitable after Wisconsin
Once Kerry and the others joined him in speaking out against the war, he struggled to define himself further. Dean didn't have a second act.

And when Saddam was caught, voters began to move on.

In the Wisconsin primary, the Iraq war was only the third most important issue for voters, far behind the economy.

In the end, the candidate Howard Dean was more about an attitude than an ideology - in fact his ideology was often misunderstood.

He was portrayed as an extreme liberal but he was conservative on a lot of issues.

However, as a way of connecting with voters, as a style, as a political salesman, Howard Dean was unique.

His days as a candidate are over, but he took the Democratic Party in a new direction at a critical moment. His place in American political history is secure.

Previous campaign columns:

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