The woman waiting to talk to Howard Dean had a story to share.
“I’m one of those unemployed, uninsured people you’re talking about,” Bridget Brown, 40, told the former Vermont governor as he met supporters at a local car plastics factory in this coastal New Hampshire town.
“Yup,” Dean responded impassively, shaking her hand.
“I actually have a medical condition now, and I can’t afford to see a doctor,” Brown continued. “So please do what you can to get in office, because we really need your help.”
“We will,” he said simply. “That’s going to be priority No. 1. Thank you.”
The Democratic presidential front-runner is no Bill Clinton, who was “the definition of charisma,” Brown noted as Dean walked on. “But that’s OK. You can’t ask somebody to be something other than who they are.”
Who Dean is may come as a surprise to those who’ve only seen televised images of him red-faced, excoriating the Bush administration as his arms chop at the air.
He’s the son of a wealthy New York family who balks at spending more than $100 for a hotel room, often has holes in his socks and wears the same gray suit on the campaign trail every day; an unassuming 5-foot-8-inch man with closely cropped salt-and-pepper hair who insists on carrying his own luggage and often gets lost in the crowds that throng around him.
Up close, Dean’s persona belies the passionate, full-throated nature of his grass-roots campaign. He speaks in functional rhetoric, glad-hands efficiently and maintains a detachment that keeps some of his most fervent fans at arm’s length.
“I tend to know that I can be most useful for somebody when I’m trying to sort through their problems, and that empathizing is really important, but that solving their problem is more important,” he said in a recent interview between campaign stops in Iowa, his shoeless feet propped up against the door of his minivan. “So I tend to do less ‘I feel your pain’ than ‘What can I do about your pain?’ ”
In many ways, Dean is the anti-Clinton on the campaign trail -- the antithesis of a politician who uses charm and a powerful personality to woo voters.
During a tour of the factory in Seabrook shortly before Christmas, a union leader escorting Dean around the floor of the nearly deserted plant desperately searched for some workers the candidate could talk to.
“There may be some more people in the back,” he said, hurrying along Dean and the dozen reporters tagging after him through the cavernous factory.
But Dean seemed unconcerned about the lack of photo opportunities, walking right past a man on a forklift without saying hello. Instead, he examined large pieces of glinting plastic, peered into giant bins lining the factory floor and quizzed his guide about the size of the inventory and the strength of the product.
Quick, incisive and often impatient with criticism, the onetime internist applies the same pragmatic eye he used to treat patients in Vermont to the challenges of running for the highest office in the land.
During a recent swing through Concord, N.H., where he picked up the endorsement of several hundred local physicians, one woman pressed him on how he has applied his doctor’s demeanor to his presidential bid.
“Would you call this an evidence-based campaign?” she asked, prompting chuckles from the audience gathered in a hotel conference room.
“My medical training does have some effect in how I behave in politics,” Dean answered with a grin. “I still feel I’m one of you.”
While other candidates weave tales of their childhoods and accomplishments for voters, Dean delivers a stump speech almost devoid of personal references, offering a blunt diagnosis of what ails America under the leadership of President Bush.
“This administration is ideologically driven, not fact-driven,” he tells audiences. “As a doctor, I know that if you have a theory and you have a fact, and the fact comes along and disproves the theory, you throw the theory out. The problem is these guys throw the fact out.”
With his analytical bedside manner and natural New England reserve, Dean is outspoken and unsentimental, with little time for self-reflection.
“I’m not good at this,” he says when pressed for personal revelations.
The father of two flies back to Vermont nearly every Wednesday to attend his son Paul’s high school hockey games, but fiercely guards his family’s privacy, and rarely mentions them publicly.
For Dean, campaigning for president is less about getting Americans to like him than it is about persuading voters that he’s right.
The former governor appears almost bemused by the repeated standing ovations he gets from overflowing crowds packed into community centers, union halls and churches in New Hampshire and Iowa. He nods quickly and cuts off the applause, eager to get to questions from the audience and to offer his prescription for the country.
Then it’s off to the next town hall meeting -- sometimes as many as six a day.
“I don’t feel like I’m a star, and that’s never been part of who I am,” Dean said. “What I want to do is get the job done, and I think I can do the job.”
The candidate uses sugar to fuel his 18-hour days, pouncing on cookies at supporters’ homes and devouring half a bag of red and green spice drops for lunch during a recent flight. He never exercises. (His New Year’s resolution is to lose the 12 pounds he has gained on the campaign trail so far.)
Despite his hectic pace, he rarely appears to tire. He strolls into rooms with a forward-leaning hunch, as if eager to get to the next stop. Between events, he constantly quizzes his aides about what else he should be doing.
As the spotlight on him has intensified, Dean occasionally bristles under the barrage of attacks from his opponents.
At a recent town hall meeting in Manchester, he quickly batted down a question from a young man who asked if he had been using a private plane owned by a company that benefits from the same type of corporate loopholes he criticizes.
“No. It’s not true,” he said brusquely. “It’s not. Next question.”
In good humor, he’s unabashedly jovial.
One night in December, he slipped inside the Concord home of one of his young aides to surprise her parents, who were hosting a Hanukkah party for the New Hampshire staff.
As 40 young people belted out Hanukkah songs in the dining room of the snow-coated Victorian house, Dean pushed open the door. The room dissolved into cheers and applause. The former governor, whose wife and children are Jewish, gamely launched into a rendition of the Hebrew prayer for the lighting of the Hanukkah candles.
Then he joined his young staff in a boisterous round of singing, including a tune written by a Massachusetts supporter. “Republicans thought they were clear,” he sang loudly. “Vermont’s so small, no need to fear. But wait until this time next year. Because we will win with people-powered Howard Dean!”
Amid much laughter and chatter, the crowd dispersed into the kitchen to eat dinner. Dean lingered behind, talking to a supporter.
When he followed them in a few minutes later, none of his staff, immersed in their food, looked up. Dean peered around the room, for once without a place to hurry off to.
For a moment, the Democratic presidential front-runner stood in a crowded kitchen in New Hampshire, unnoticed, alone.