The Magazine

Swooning for Howard Dean

From the April 14, 2003 issue: Another small-state governor captivates New Hampshire's Democrats.

Apr 14, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 30 • By DAVID TELL
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Manchester, New Hampshire

AT JUST BEFORE 3 p.m. on a Friday, the sidewalks are more or less deserted; center-city Manchester has a slightly hard-luck feel these days. But inside the downtown Holiday Inn, the ballroom and corridors are abuzz, packed with teachers' union types, delegates to the annual convention of the National Education Association's New Hampshire affiliate. Next on the agenda, the conclave will host a "Policy Forum on Education" starring Howard Dean. And the hallway buzz among the conclavees--a fair chunk of it, anyway--is about him.

Nearly all the teachers I talk to figure they've already got a pretty good fix on who Dean is: He's the former five-term governor of next-door Vermont, a doctor by training, and now one of the principal Democratic candidates for president in 2004. Several of the teachers I talk to also sketch out a typological survey of that still-nascent campaign from which only Dean's role emerges in sharp relief. Howard Dean, they say, is the heart-of-the-party guy, the spontaneous straightshooter, "like John McCain"--the phrase recurs--except that Dean is an Unembarrassed Liberal.

This last impression arises primarily from Dean's months-long effort to distinguish himself as a uniquely dogged and forthright opponent of President Bush's Iraq policy. And as it happens, right now, this very afternoon, March 21, a new and particularly dramatic manifestation of that policy is being broadcast live on television sets across the globe: The Pentagon's much-anticipated "shock and awe" aerial bombardment of Iraq's government and military installations is finally underway and Baathist Baghdad is all of a sudden a grimly photogenic nighttime inferno. Have the NEA-NH delegates at the Holiday Inn caught word of the latest missile strikes? They've been attending convention business meetings pretty much non-stop since early this morning, but even so, yes, they have. Are they curious to hear what Howard Dean will have to say about this development? Yes, they are. And do they expect him to say something candid and forceful, in the manner of John McCain--though pointedly antiwar, in the manner of . . . well, Howard Dean? Yes, they do.

The man himself arrives minutes later, but before he enters the ballroom to address his formal audience, he sets up at the center of a tiny media contingent--all but one of us based locally--for an obligatory foyer-corner "press availability." The initial conversation is not about the war news, not directly; we journalists are sophisticated insiders, you understand, so the questions concern primary-election ramifications and associated demographic intricacies.

How can a campaign based on a message "like yours" make successful appeal to southerners, someone asks? "We've got to get white males to vote Democratic again, particularly in the South," Dean acknowledges, but "I want to balance the budget and I want health insurance for every American, and that's a message that I think'll play well all over the country." What about specific swing-states outside the Northeast, though, the kind Bill Clinton was able to capture in 1996--does Dean think he has a shot at them? "I do. I'll have a shot certainly at Arizona and Colorado and Wyoming. As you know, my gun policy is a little more conservative than most Democrats'. . . [a]nd I think that'll be attractive in the West. I come from a state that doesn't have any gun control."

John DiStaso of Manchester's Union-Leader, the only other print reporter in the gaggle and the most important political correspondent in the state, attempts to steer things back to the war by mentioning a preference poll released earlier in the day that shows Dean having vaulted into a margin-of-error dead heat with Massachusetts senator John Kerry among New Hampshire Democratic primary voters. According to the numbers, most if not all of Dean's surge is the product of antiwar feeling at his party's grassroots, and yet recent news accounts suggest that the governor may have decided to tone down his criticism of military action, so . . .