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The Kinder, Gentler Howard Dean

The doctor finally opens up to his patients.

11:00 PM, Jan 25, 2004 • By DAVID TELL
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Manchester, New Hampshire

I HAVE THE IMPRESSION there's been a larger contingent of European reporters traveling around in the Dean campaign press pool these past few days. (And Canadians. For present analytical purposes, I suppose they ought to qualify, too.) It further seems to me, from overheard conversations, and from the questions they're asking the candidate, that these, my brothers and sisters of the overseas media, have pretty much decided that Gov. Dean will finish the New Hampshire primary with a "loss." They've also pretty much decided what that "loss" is going to mean: that the low-brow beast of American mass politics has awakened from its slumbers and devoured a brave, good man leading a campaign of rare sophistication and refinement. As inevitably happens here in the States, let's face it.

Much this same view of things appears widely held among the people who are showing up for Howard Dean's New Hampshire stretch-run campaign events. Not the part about losing, mind you. The overnight tracking polls, unreliable and wildly divergent though they may be, all suggest that Dean has arrested his post-Iowa slide, and will head into the primary's closing 48 hours with his core support intact: let's say 20 percent or so of Tuesday's likely turnout. These are die-hards--and die-hards who've developed an unusually intense, self-idealizing emotional investment in their candidate --so the prospect of actual defeat probably isn't something they've allowed themselves to think about all that much. If and when it comes, I'm sure it will distress them plenty.

Distress them plenty, that is, but leave the Dean-rally denizens' basic, mythological understanding of the 2004 campaign otherwise undisturbed. The mythology is very Old Europe, you might say. Look for it, win or lose, in next Wednesday's edition of Le Monde: Setting out in all directions from Burlington, Vermont, a gathering vanguard of American civilization rode into mortal combat with the Christian right, the Fortune 500, the red-states lumpenproletariat, and the Democratic Leadership Council. Good versus evil. Poets versus jocks. Cloth diapers versus Pampers (at least for that first 24 hours home from the hospital).

Of course, it used to be, just a couple weeks ago, that the governor's public appearances were drawing a fair number of less enlightened types, as well--not just the gathering vanguard of American civilization. But far as I can tell, those folks have mostly stopped coming; it's just the vanguard now.

Early Saturday afternoon in New Castle, Dean held a "town hall" meeting at "Wentworth By the Sea," a mammoth and "restoration"-marred Victorian resort hotel perched on a little bluff overlooking one of the East Coast's most beautiful Atlantic bays. There were a couple hundred people jammed into the building's ballroom, with an overflow crowd listening in by loudspeaker from an adjacent antechamber. Consistent with the Dean campaign's recent practice, the event began 45 minutes late, and, just as consistently, it began with a series of personal conversion-experience testimonials : "How I was led to reborn hope about American politics by the Gospel of Howard," that kind of thing.

First up was a young local woman who--just like millions of young local women all across this great country of ours--recently attended college in Scotland. There she discovered the blessings of universal healthcare coverage, provided through the British government's National Health system. ("It's better in Scotland," a friendly English fellow standing next to me offered reassuringly.) Well, you can imagine: The contrast of Scottish medical services with those in her own, more primitive, Hobbesian homeland made this fair lass ashamed. Come graduation, she told us, "I returned to the U.S. terribly disillusioned"--and "the 2000 election only made it worse." But she's better now. Governor Dean has arrived on the nation's political stage, and our heroine has once again dared dream of a day when . . . well, you get the idea. Two other people followed this young lady to the microphone and gave similarly-styled witness. Then, finally, it was the candidate's turn.

THE NEW, post-Iowa, post-Diane Sawyer Howard Dean is still fighting a cold, still a bit hoarse, and still delivering the same essential stump speech. But it appears he's trying to deliver it with "friendlier," one-big-happy-family atmospherics. Some of this literally involves his family; Dean's mother, Andree, was seated behind him on the stage in New Castle, for example. Dean's wife, Judy, campaigned with him all day yesterday, and will join him again for most of the day today.