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To Dean, Now It’s Wisconsin or Bust

Times Staff Writers

Setting up a political showdown in his faltering campaign for president, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said Thursday that he would be forced to quit the Democratic race if he did not win the Feb. 17 Wisconsin primary.

Dean staffers hastily checked out of a Detroit hotel and canceled an appearance at a forum there Thursday night so the candidate could return to Wisconsin -- hoping to stem a remarkable collapse by the populist candidate who only weeks ago was considered by many to be the likely Democratic nominee.

But Dean’s failure to win Iowa and New Hampshire, along with weak finishes in seven state contests Tuesday, have led to an on-the-run strategy reassessment. A campaign that had assured voters it would wage a far-flung fight for delegates now says its future depends on a single state.

While Dean’s immediate political fortunes appeared in jeopardy Thursday, Democratic front-runner Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts continued his upward trajectory. He anticipated an endorsement today from Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who quit the race following a disappointing finish in the Iowa caucuses.

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Dean on Thursday signaled that he was prepared for an all-out confrontation with Kerry in Wisconsin, saying he thought voters there would back away from the U.S. senator once they knew more about his record.

“Our goal is very clear,” he said. “We intend to be one of the two candidates standing after Wisconsin.”

Yet experts questioned whether even a victory in Wisconsin could resuscitate Dean’s near-bankrupt campaign.

“Forget Wisconsin, Howard Dean is finished and I think the sooner he realizes that the better it will be for him and the rest of the Democratic Party,” said professor Terry Jones, a political scientist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

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“All these pronouncements are a last-gasp effort of a dead campaign, and any attempts to resuscitate it will be futile.”

Dean has a considerable climb to overtake Kerry on his chosen battlefield. A poll by the University of Wisconsin Survey Center, concluded Tuesday, shows Kerry comfortably ahead of the field with 35% support, followed by Clark at 11%, Edwards at 9% and Dean at 8%.

The situation could be even more difficult for Dean for at least two reasons: The survey of 400 likely voters was completed before Dean lost seven more primaries and caucuses Tuesday. It showed that the former Vermont’s governor’s standing among likely Wisconsin voters was by far the lowest among the top candidates -- with one third holding a negative impression of him and one in five a positive view.

On Thursday, the Dean camp sent an e-mail to tens of thousands of supporters in its appeal for donations, saying, “The entire race has come down to this: We must win Wisconsin. Anything less will put us out of the race.”

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Campaign aides later tried to distance Dean from the e-mail, backpedaling from its tone.

“The e-mail said if we did poorly we might be out of the race,” said Dean campaign CEORoy Neel “The e-mail did not say we’d withdraw from the race.”

But pressed on whether he stood by the e-mail, Dean said: “Yes, I stand by it.”

In a conference call with reporters, Neel insisted that a victory in Wisconsin could dramatically change Dean’s fortunes. “It’s a big deal state and it sends the message that the candidate who was on top before has come back,” he said.

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From there, he added, Dean would have enough momentum to go into the March 2 primaries -- which include California, Ohio and New York -- in a strong position. “It will give such a boost to all of our supporters in the states for Super Tuesday,” Neel said. “It will transform the campaign for us.”

The campaign said that by Thursday night it had raised $600,000 of the $700,000 goal Dean had set that morning.

Neel said the campaign would devote all of its remaining resources to the state, diverting staff from Washington state and Michigan after their caucuses Saturday. Dean also will run radio and TV ads in Wisconsin starting Monday, as well as sending direct mail, he said.

Political experts in Wisconsin say Dean’s chances there appear to be dwindling in the state, which had rallied behind Dean’s independent, maverick message.

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“People here relate to his antiwar message, his ‘I’m an outsider’ message, his ‘Hey, isn’t anyone paying attention to all this malarkey with the Bush administration’ message,” said Georgia Duerst-Lahti, a political scientist at Beloit College in Wisconsin.

But outside liberal Madison, “I felt the interest swing away” after Dean placed third in Iowa, Duerst-Lahti said. “There’s a feeling of reticence even among students. The enthusiasm, the willingness to step out there and go to the mat, the high energy, it all seems gone.”

Showing his commitment to the state, Dean returned Thursday evening wearing a blue enamel lapel pin in the form of the map of Wisconsin. He stopped at a phone bank manned by union volunteers and fielded a half-dozen phone calls himself, telling one supporter, “I’ll be here for the next 10 days, so maybe I’ll run into you.”

The only likely detours for the candidate over that time appear to be a trip to Maine, which holds caucuses Sunday, and to his hometown of Burlington, Vt., to see his son play his last home game for the high school hockey team that he captains.

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In contrast with Dean’s chaotic day, Kerry picked up several more endorsements, including that of former Maine Sen. George Mitchell on Thursday. He also expected Gephardt to join him while campaigning in Michigan today, hoping Gephardt’s blue-collar backing would help him in a pro-union state such as Michigan.

“John Kerry and Dick Gephardt have been friends for years and share the same values when it comes to protecting labor and workers’ rights,” said Kerry spokeswoman advisor Stephanie Cutter. “We’re thrilled to have this endorsement.”

In a response to Dean’s Internet fundraising savvy, the Kerry camp pointed to their candidate’s own online success, reporting that half of the $5 million raised this year had come via the Internet, Cutter said.

Elsewhere, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina campaigned in Tennessee and Virginia on Thursday, hoping to continue the momentum he picked up by winning Tuesday’s Democratic contest in his native state of South Carolina.

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Speaking with reporters on a charter flight, Edwards downplayed Gephardt’s endorsement of Kerry: “If you look at the history of endorsements in this campaign, they just haven’t had a lot of sway with voters. Voters make their own decisions.”

Campaigning in Tennessee, retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark took shots at both Kerry and Edwards, accusing the two of supporting President Bush repeatedly over the last three years, only to change their minds while campaigning.

“They’ve spent months on the campaign trail criticizing George W. Bush and his reckless policies when, in the 107th Congress, both men voted with the president almost 70% of the time,” Clark said. “I don’t think you can stand with President Bush one day and then against him once you decide to run for the presidency.”

Dean’s fiery delivery seemed muted when he began speaking Thursday before a small crowd at the University of Michigan’s Flint campus. He then moved on to a Boys and Girls Club in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak.

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He seemed his most buoyant while making rounds with physicians at a Detroit hospital, where he talked about how he missed “the intellectual challenge” of being a doctor.

Hours later, the Dean camp switched gears. Shortly after checking into a downtown Detroit hotel, staffers announced that the campaign was opting out of a Detroit town hall-style event and moving on to Wisconsin.

The sudden about-face baffled not only Dean staffers but also supporters in other states such as Michigan, which along with Washington holds it nominating contest Saturday.

Said one unnamed Dean aide: “It’s hard to make one statement and one plan and then change to another. I don’t think it was a very smart thing to do.”

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Within hours of landing in Milwaukee after crossing Lake Michigan on a chartered plane, a beaming Dean seemed ready to take on the new challenge.

He ended the long day at the Bean Head Cafe, where more than 100 supporters chanted “Dean! Dean! Dean!” and “Howard’s the voice! Kerry’s the Echo!”

Suzanne Davidson of Milwaukee, an editor of college textbooks, said she would run through a wall for Dean. “We’re ready to go,” she said. “We’ve been out [canvassing voters] every day, and we’re going to be out every day here on in.”

At an earlier stop in Michigan, emergency room nurse Jennifer Holmes insisted that Dean was still her man and could pull the nomination out of the fire.

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Yet there was a shade of doubt in her voice: “But if people think he is giving up,” she said, “they might give up too.”

Rainey reported from Milwaukee and Glionna from San Francisco. Times staff writers Maria L. La Ganga, Scott Martelle and Eric Slater contributed to this report.


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