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Prez Box

How the Mighty Have Fallen

By John Barry | Posted 2/11/2004

Super Bowl Sunday was supposed to be a bash for the Deaniacs, who gathered at house parties around the country to show their support for their fading Democratic presidential candidate, Howard Dean. But at one Dean party in Charles Village, the atmosphere is more like a wake than a celebration. A houseful of believers crowds around a conference call, eating baby carrots and listening to their man tell them that he hopes the New England Patriots win the game so Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry "has something to cheer about." Kerry, of course, already has plenty to cheer about. Over the past few weeks since the Iowa caucuses, when the former Vermont governor came in a dismal third behind opponents Kerry and North Carolina Congressman John Edwards (and Dean made his now-infamous "scream" speech), Kerry's campaign has surged forward. Dean's, however, has been idling. During his Super Bowl Sunday conference call, Dean is in relaxed mode--he makes a few jabs about Botox and some not-so-optimistic predictions for the next round of primary elections (which turned out to be right on the money)--and he sounds almost grateful that Kerry has taken on the mantle of front-runner. He recites the long list of states his campaign will have to slog through on the way to victory. But his words sound a bit hollow--more like a mantra than a war whoop.

Meanwhile, one white-bearded veteran of the Dean's New Hampshire campaign reminisces about May 2003, when he says the candidate was attracting crowds to his gatherings unlike those seen by any of the other candidates. Another expresses his disappointment a little more grumpily, noting that Dean has "tanked like the Internet stock in 2000." Yet another supporter wonders if Dean ought to simmer down a bit, instead of promising to fight through to the end.

If there's any bitterness expressed by this group, it's directed toward the Kerry campaign, which turned its big guns on Dean about a month ago. Stories are being shared about the Kerry campaign's low blows, such as negative campaigning against Dean on Kerry's Web site and in campaign literature.

A little fence-mending may be required between the Kerry campaign and the Deaniacs, but they'll likely move back into the fold when it's all over. Dean's no Gene McCarthy: Most of these people say they'll choose a pro-war Democrat over George W. Bush any day.

Dean's is not an unusual story: A dynamic candidate seizes the initiative, attracts new people to the party, speaks his mind. Members of the press hop on board, and almost immediately they deconstruct the guy.

Candidates who get angry when someone calls their wives alcoholics are not up to the job (Edward Muskie). Candidates who don't get mad when someone asks what they would do if someone raped their wife are not tough enough (Michael Dukakis). Candidates who seem somewhat aloof from their supporters are not in touch with the people (Bill Bradley). Candidates whose supporters cheer them on so wildly that they shout to be heard, and who show too much enthusiasm, are loose cannons (Dean).

Locally, one name that comes up repeatedly when discussing the candidate meltdown is former Baltimore mayoral hopeful Lawrence Bell III. In a legendary free-fall, his 1999 mayoral campaign went from 60 to zero in a matter of weeks, paving the way for Martin O'Malley to be elected mayor. Bell was president of the City Council at the time, and the election was his to lose--which he did. He blew $4,000 in campaign funds at Saks Fifth Avenue, stopped paying the bills on his condo, and showed up late to campaign forums. His campaign workers handed out white supremacist literature at his opponents' rallies. And finally, to hammer the final nail in his political coffin, Bell hitched his wagon to the star of Washington's troubled, erstwhile mayor Marion Barry. Despite starting out at the top of the pack, Bell came in third, with only 17 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. The last we heard, he was hosting a radio talk show in Atlanta.

Carl Stokes, former City Council member and Dean supporter, came in second in that roller-coaster 1999 mayoral election. He has this to say to early front-runners: Don't be one.

"Did [Dean] do anything wrong?" he asks. "Not really. In politics, they tend to pressure the front-runner. He makes mistakes the competitors don't repeat. Getting out in front causes a nagging sense about who is electable and which one is best."

Regardless of the current state of the Dean campaign, Stokes says he'll support the campaign for the long haul.

But not everyone's ready for the slog Dean now faces. Maryland for Dean precinct captain Judy Neiman, for example, says she's turning in her books and moving on. The campaign workers have been gracious, she says, but she can't do it anymore. She places the blame for the candidate's fall from grace squarely on the infamous scream speech.

"Americans don't like anger," she says. "That's Dean's problem. He's aggressive and doesn't take orders." It's funny because Dean's maverick straightforwardness and self-confidence was what brought her on board in the first place.

Four days after the Super Bowl, the so-called Junior Tuesday primaries on Feb. 3 are over, Dean is still batting .000, and the troops are licking their wounds at the GrilleWater tavern in Canton, where local Deaniacs meet once a month. The place is bustling, but there were a lot more people here for the meeting last month. The ones who've remained through the meltdown seem oddly empowered and ready to hang on, though--if not for Dean, for themselves and the political network they've created. Veterans of New Hampshire and Iowa line up at the mic, boosting morale and bashing Bush.

Meanwhile, Dean's image is playing on the television above the bar, his arm wrapped around his wife. He's trying to persuade Diane Sawyer that he can smooth out the rough edges before it's too late.

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