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After Stumbles, Dean Snaps Back to His Blunt Style

Times Staff Writers

Howard Dean was off his game.

Under pressure from his staff to show restraint despite unrelenting criticisms from his rivals in the Democratic presidential race, the former Vermont governor spent the last few weeks trying to curb his outspoken tongue. But the effort frustrated him, aides now acknowledge, leaving him feeling beleaguered and defensive.

On Sunday, he snapped angrily at a voter in Oelwein, Iowa, who accused him of being divisive by criticizing President Bush. That night, Dean also stumbled in a candidate debate in Des Moines.

Before hitting the campaign trail Monday, Dean huddled with advisors in Des Moines.

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He wanted to get back to basics, he told them. He wanted to return to the message that first propelled his insurgent candidacy: a blunt denouncement of the other Democrats as too timid to stand up to President Bush.

“I’m just going to fight. I’m just going to be me and not worry about it,” Dean said, according to Joe Trippi, his campaign manager.

By Monday afternoon, Dean had his groove back. During a six-stop swing through southeastern Iowa, he characterized his main challengers in the Democratic race as “establishment politicians” and reminded voters of his outsider credentials.

“Over the past few weeks, our campaign has been attacked by just about everybody under the sun,” he told voters in Mount Pleasant, his sleeves rolled up in trademark fashion. “Today is the day we start to fight back! We are not going to lose to a member of the Washington establishment.”

Dean’s fresh focus comes as the race in Iowa has tightened and retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark is nipping at his heels in New Hampshire. It remains to be seen whether his burst of energy will overcome any doubts about him that might have arisen before the Iowa caucuses on Monday.

“We have a situation where a bit of buyer’s remorse seems to be setting in,” said one Iowa Democratic strategist who is neutral in race. “People are saying, ‘Wait a minute, is this guy the most electable against President Bush?’ ”

Dean supporters said they were troubled during the last few weeks as the candidate -- conscious of his frontrunner status and wary of stumbling -- assumed a defensive crouch and a restrained campaign style.

“He’s in trouble,” said Dave Nagle, a former Iowa Democratic Party chairman and congressman.

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Nagle, who has been accompanying Dean as he campaigns around the state, said he thought Dean must revive the firebrand style that galvanized supporters earlier in the year.

“I want the guy that is combative, that is aggressive, that is willing to engage his opponents directly,” he said. “If he fails to do that, he very well could lose Iowa.”

Dean and his staff seem to recognize that as well.

“The thing about Howard Dean I think so many people who support him like is that he doesn’t calculate before he talks,” Trippi said. “That means that he is not always going to get it right. [But] to mess with that is to mess with the core ingredients of what makes him a successful candidate.”

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And so on Monday, Dean shrugged off his constraints. For the first time, he went after Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, whose poll numbers have been improving in Iowa, as “a real Washington politician.” He reminded voters that he came out against the war in Iraq before his major opponents. And he took a swipe at the news media, accusing the “establishment media” of trying to run him down.

“I’m rejuvenated and ready to fight,” he told reporters. “Because when people attack me, that rejuvenates me in a big hurry.”

At home the next day in Burlington, Vt., he was upbeat and relaxed, aides said.

As he did almost two dozen radio and television interviews, his campaign began running a tough television commercial in Iowa contrasting his stance on the war in Iraq with those of Edwards, Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry. All of them voted for the congressional resolution that authorized the war.

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Back on the campaign trail Wednesday in New Hampshire, Dean seemed buoyant, despite frigid weather and new polls showing that Clark has eroded his lead in the state to a single digit.

In Derry, N.H., Dean practically bounded onto the stage of a local opera house for a town hall meeting. He abandoned his usual reserve to embrace several former Vermont officials there to campaign on his behalf.

“Some of our opponents have tried to turn me into a pincushion, and I don’t plan to be a pincushion,” he declared as the audience of about 200 cheered.

“I got my start in this race by standing up to George Bush ... and we’re going to win by continuing to remind people that when it was important to stand up to George Bush, only one candidate in this race dared to do it.”

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A few hours later in Nashua, N.H., he took after Clark for the first time, calling him “a Republican” -- the kind of swipe his staff was urging him to avoid in recent weeks.

Several minutes later, a man asked Dean if he had the stomach to weather a general election campaign by Bush that could be “vicious” and “underhanded.”

“I’m getting pretty good practice right now,” Dean said with a chuckle. “You ought to see what’s going on out in Iowa.... my attitude is if you tell the truth in the long run, you win. And I can’t guarantee that, but it’s the only chance we have.”


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