Howard Dean decided to essentially end his presidential bid Tuesday, according to a top aide, after he placed a distant third in the Wisconsin primary, his 17th straight loss at the polls.
Though Dean is not going to formally drop out of the race, he is going to stop campaigning, the aide said. The move would allow his supporters to continue to vote for him in the upcoming primaries and have a say at the Democratic National Convention in July.
The former Vermont governor is scheduled to announce his decision today at a local hotel.
Dean’s decision comes after he insisted for days that he would not drop out if he lost in Wisconsin. But his top advisors agreed that it would be futile for him to stay in the race after suffering a slew of defeats.
The mood was already nostalgic among members of Dean’s staff, who greeted him when he arrived in Burlington early today with chants of “Dean! Dean! Dean” and calls of “Welcome home!” They embraced the former governor, who appeared relaxed and at peace with his decision.
“You guys are the best,” he said.
As he stood on the airport tarmac in the frosty early morning air, Dean did not let on that he had made the decision to withdraw, at one point joking that he was going to campaign next in Hawaii.
He was also vague Tuesday night when he thanked a few hundred supporters assembled in a hotel ballroom in Madison, Wis.
But he struck a reflective tone in a 20-minute speech to supporters, reminding them of what they have accomplished.
“I know that some of you are disappointed because we didn’t do as well as we had hoped we would do in Wisconsin, but I also want you to think for a moment about how far we have come,” Dean said.
“The truth is, change is tough,” he added. “You have already started to change the Democratic Party, and we will not stop.”
Dean’s speech not long after the polls closed here was neither defiant nor manic, like the Iowa concession jag that was replayed for days on national television.
Instead, the candidate delivered what aides and others agreed was one of his finest speeches -- combining fond reminiscences of his two years on the campaign trail with a determined call for the Democratic Party not to abandon the issues he brought to the fore.
“We together have only begun our work,” he said, gazing out at the crowd. “People have said that we have begun to transform the Democratic Party.... But the transformation that we have wrought is a transformation of convenience and not of conviction, and we have to fight and fight and fight.”
His loss in Wisconsin came after the former Vermont governor virtually camped out in the state for 10 days, pleading with voters to reignite his faltering candidacy.
At one point, he lashed out at Kerry, accusing the Democratic front-runner of supporting corrupt fundraising tactics and describing him as little better than President Bush.
Despite the attention Dean showered on the state, crowds at his events dwindled and his aides grew grim.
Soon, it became evident that Wisconsin voters were in the same pragmatic mood as voters in other states.
“I probably agree more with Dean than anyone else, but he seems to be fizzling and I want a winner,” said Jim Weiland, 49, a photo studio owner who brought his 18-year-old son to a town hall meeting with Dean in Oshkosh last week. “Kerry is a war hero, and I think that will help him against Bush.”
Dean’s indecision about how to treat the Wisconsin primary began Feb. 5. He e-mailed supporters early that morning to say his candidacy would end if he did not win the state. But days later, he reversed that position and said he would fight on, regardless of the outcome.
Aides said that Dean had been realistic about his prospects but concerned about letting down his most dedicated supporters, who have been posting messages on his website and clutching his hands at event, pleading with him to stay in the race.
“You’re not going to abandon us to the sharks, are you?” one woman asked him as he stopped at a polling place in Madison on Tuesday evening.
Nearly all his advisors had agreed he could no longer win, but they said they wanted to give him the candidate time to make his own decision.
On Monday evening, Dean stood on a stage in a gilded Madison theater, surrounded by hundreds of supporters chanting, “We want Dean!”
With his shirt sleeves rolled up in his trademark fashion, the he delivered an extended version of his campaign speech -- perhaps for the last time. Several times, he seemed about to conclude, but then launched on another tangent, unwilling to abandon the stage.
“You got some time, right?” he asked the audience, which shouted and applauded in response. “You guys weren’t going anyplace.”