Howard Dean’s overheated concession speech in Iowa may have inflicted irreparable harm on his campaign, intensifying concerns that Vermont’s former governor is prone to outbursts and fits of pique that make him unqualified to be president, analysts said Wednesday.
The image of Dean repeatedly punching the air in a performance some likened to an emotional meltdown has played endlessly on cable news networks and offered instant fodder for late-night comedy monologues.
“He’s a very rational, pleasant human being, but he looked like a rabid dog,” said Charlie Cook, publisher of a nonpartisan Washington political newsletter. “To say he appeared unpresidential is an understatement.”
The damage was immediately quantifiable. Surveys showed a fall in Dean’s approval ratings and a tightening race in New Hampshire -- where he faces a major test Tuesday, when the state hosts the nation’s first presidential primary.
Adding further insult, the medium that had been the most powerful force for delivering his campaign message was being used to mock him Wednesday as samples of his Iowa speech were turned into shrieking soundtracks on the Internet.
Dean, who has been criticized for his peevish personality since his days as Vermont governor, abruptly shifted his style to a more measured approach since arriving here after his third-place finish in Iowa.
Conducting a series of television interviews from Burlington, Vt., Wednesday, the former governor was asked repeatedly about his caucus night speech. Dean defended his tenor, saying he was reaching out to his tireless volunteers.
“There were 3,500 screaming kids in that room who’d worked their hearts out for me in Iowa, all of them waving an American flag,” Dean told KWTV in Oklahoma City. “I thought I owed it to them to buck up their spirits and I was pleased that I did.”
But the price could be one of those frozen-in-time moments that forever defines his campaign. The round-the-clock broadcasts of that isolated appearance come at a time when many voters nationwide are just tuning in to the election now that the balloting has actually started.
Republicans were delighted, characterizing Dean’s manic performance as everything from wild-eyed to mentally unstable.
“It was hard to watch that scene replayed over and over and not conclude in fact he is an angry guy who may be border-line psychotic,” said Don Sipple, a GOP media strategist, foreshadowing a likely Republican line of attack in the fall should Dean emerge as the Democrats’ nominee.
“It was one of those defining moments -- in a bad way.”
Some Dean supporters seemed less upset about his disappointing Iowa finish than his over-caffeinated response afterward. “I am concerned for our candidate. Had he been drinking before he went on stage?” read one posting on his campaign Web log, which has served as both bulletin board and rallying point during his rise from insurgent to leader of the Democratic pack.
Even unfazed loyalists were forced to defend their candidate, as the mood of some campaign supporters plunged from exuberance to shock and dismay.
Indeed, the speech seemed to play well within the fevered confines of the retro disco ballroom of a West Des Moines hotel where Dean spoke soon after the results were known. Some in attendance said they felt the candidate resorted to shouts to be heard over the roar of the crowd.
“Anyone who thinks Dean was over the top last night obviously wasn’t there,” wrote one website supporter who was.
But when carried on worldwide television, the speech seemed to cross an invisible line from passion to self-parody.
“If it were a closed room with no cameras and no press, just him and his sort of rambunctious supporters, it would have been totally appropriate,” said Cook. “But television is a hot medium, and you can’t do that. I think he badly, badly damaged himself.”
There have been other stumbles as Dean has made the transition, sometimes awkwardly, from longshot to leader of the Democratic field. His opponents have seized on several statements in an attempt to question his judgment and leadership capacity -- such as his suggestion that Osama bin Laden should not be pre-judged in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Dean also appeared to hurt himself with attempts to remake his image to seem more like a standard-issue presidential candidate.
When his lack of public religious faith became an issue, Dean began talking about the Bible, embarrassing himself in the process by mixing up the Old and New Testaments.
When questions arose about the absence of his wife from the campaign trail, Dean first insisted she had her own career as a physician and would never be used as a prop. Then, she was promptly whisked across the country for a cameo appearance on Sunday after the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll showed his campaign sinking to third place behind the eventual top finishers, Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina.
During the final days of Iowa campaigning, he traded his suit and tie for an ensemble of sweaters in an attempt to soften his image -- contrary to his appeal as the sort of rough-edged candidate who refused to bow to popular whims.
“The guy was presenting himself as unvarnished and it appeared manipulative ... it looked like a contrived response,” said Dave Nagle, a former Iowa congressman and prominent Dean supporter. “It was a complete change. He started looking like someone dressing up. Or dressing down.”
But all of that paled as the image of a screeching Dean became an instant pop culture phenomenon.
By Wednesday, he was a staple of stand-up comedy; a doctored Dean, with his head exploding, made the David Letterman show. Re-mastered versions of his remarks, set to a techno-dance beat -- “YEAGH!! WE’RE GOIN’ TO CALIFORNIA!” -- were circulating worldwide on the Internet.
History is full of presidential candidates sunk by such defining moments, from Michigan Gov. George Romney’s assertion he was brainwashed into supporting the Vietnam War to Edmund Muskie apparently shedding tears over a campaign attack on his wife here, to Bob Dole’s snarling challenge to George H.W. Bush to “stop lying about my record” after losing the 1988 New Hampshire primary.
Dean’s reputation for a volatile temper preceded his White House run. As governor of Vermont, he was known to call into radio talk shows to assail his critics, once taking on a mother on welfare. An aide was finally assigned to sooth the hurt feelings Dean often left behind.
Now, badly in need of a win in New Hampshire to steady his campaign, the question is whether Dean can recover.
“The reaction is emotional with people. It makes them uncomfortable,” said Dick Bennett, a Manchester public opinion researcher who has conducted nightly polls that have found Dean’s support slipping in the state.
“Nobody saw Bill Clinton with Gennifer Flowers,” he said, referring to allegations of an extramarital affair that nearly sunk Clinton’s 1992 campaign. “But everybody saw or heard Howard Dean. And if they haven’t, they will.”
A bit of self-deprecation might go a long way. Clinton recovered from a marathon speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention by lampooning himself on a “Tonight Show” appearance. Former Vice President Al Gore made jokes about the Macarena dance a staple of his stump speeches.
But gleeful Republicans suggested Dean’s image was damaged beyond repair.
“He’ll melt and melt and melt until there is no more Howard Dean,” said Sipple, the GOP media strategist.
Times staff writer Matea Gold and researcher Susannah Rosenblatt contributed to this report.