BY EARLY SPRING, journalists and political activists had begun to notice that former Vermont governor Howard Dean had a knack for firing up crowds. He was little known and badly financed, but his issues were unfudged and easy to understand: budget-balancing, civil unions for gays, a middle-of-the-road states-rights position on guns, and implacable opposition to the war in Iraq. Tying them all together was a hostility to George W. Bush that bordered on loathing. Dean has called the Bush administration a collection of "right-wing wackos," and last week, at a meeting on a New Hampshire lawn, he bluntly described the president's promise to unite Americans as "a lie."

Only in the last month has the general public remarked on Dean's rise. Democrats admire his candor. He's within two points of John Kerry in the latest University of New Hampshire poll on the primary there, taken in early July. In mid-month, one New Hampshire Republican who is considering a statewide bid polled a small sample of Democrats and Independents and found Dean at 30 percent, Kerry at 26 percent, and the others clustered in single digits.

Watching Dean pile up support is like watching Albert Pujols go after baseball's Triple Crown: He's not at the top of every category, but he's the only guy within striking distance of winning each one. Dean could conceivably win Iowa, which Kerry cannot; he could conceivably win New Hampshire, which Dick Gephardt cannot. If Dean wins Iowa, Gephardt's presidential hopes are finished; if Dean wins New Hampshire, Kerry's are badly wounded. People are beginning to speak of a "two-tier" race in New Hampshire and Iowa, with Dean joining Kerry and (to be charitable) Gephardt in tier one. But even that may underestimate Dean's strength. It's more accurate to say the race has become Howard Dean versus a half-dozen blow-dried shills for an intellectually exhausted party who are now, as one New Hampshire newspaper put it, "scurrying around New Hampshire--boring people."

The turning point for Dean came with the release of his second-quarter fundraising tally. At $7.5 million, Dean outraised all his fellow candidates. The amount of money was less important than the way he raised it: through 45,000 donors, 80 percent of whom gave under $250 apiece, and many of whom were enticed into the campaign by the Internet site MeetUp.com. These contributions are matchable by the Federal Election Commission in a general election, meaning that Dean, should he be nominated, will be able to tap election funds the others lack. What's more, these small contributions--unlike much of the financial support of the other Democratic candidates--would be quite legal even if the temporary restraining order on campaign finance reform were lifted.

But these itty-bitty donations have a symbolic value, too. The Democratic party is a wishbone of proletarian sloganeering and plutocratic direction that, when snapped, always leaves one side disillusioned. Racial and lifestyle minorities provide the electoral ballast for the party, true. But outside of those categories, the Democrats are the party of America's crème de la crème--not just the "cultural elite," as Dan Quayle put it, but the elite, period. Overwhelming evidence for this came in the form of a June study by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. It found that Republicans outraise Democrats by 63 percent to 37 percent among penny-ante donors--those who give under $200. The GOP retains that advantage at all levels up to $100,000, although it steadily narrows as the dollar amount rises. Once you hit $100,000, the Democrats really begin to clean up. They hold a fundraising advantage that widens rapidly as the numbers get more stratospheric. In contributions of over $1 million, they outraise Republicans by 92 percent to 8 percent.

Dean may have risen by attracting a base of fundraisers who are the same people as those the party claims, increasingly implausibly, to speak for. Nonetheless--or, perhaps, therefore--many Democrats are asking whether he is "electable." Among these doubters are the architects of two consecutive losses in national elections. Their skepticism seems premature. Those Democrats who dismiss Dean as unelectable are making an assessment of what non-Democratic voters think, and this is a subject on which Democrats have been driven into a frenzy of illogic by their dislike of George W. Bush. The current self-serving self-delusion--one reads it in "Doonesbury" and hears it from Nancy Pelosi and a variety of marginal commentators and celebrity know-nothings--is that Republicans have succeeded because their message is stupid and simple and dishonest; and Democrats have failed because they're so subtle and principled. Under this logic, Democrats will do best by nominating a malevolent sleazeball and getting him to shout at the top of his lungs. Suffice it to say that this logic is identical to that upon which Republicans built a string of defeats in the Clinton years.

But there is no concrete political reason why Dean should be less electable than any of his rivals. People forget that "electability" used to be a synonym for "large advertising budget." Dean has the latter; therefore he has the former. Those who wonder whether his issue appeal is broad enough forget how far John McCain got attacking on a far narrower front. Another rap on Dean is that his "social libertarianism"--by which is meant his support for gay civil unions--is going to destroy him in the South. But any Democratic candidate will be destroyed in the South. The only one with a chance of appealing to social conservatives is Joe Lieberman. But since the Congressional Black Caucus singled out Lieberman for condemnation on July 9, and since Kweisi Mfume attacked him (along with Gephardt and Dennis Kucinich) for not singing for his supper at a July 14 NAACP roundtable, it is abundantly clear that the black establishment has made it a priority to sabotage his candidacy. Their reasons can only be guessed, but the upshot can be stated plainly: Without black support, Lieberman can't compete in the South, either.

A more subtle version of this southern critique is that Dean is so regionally limited that he will let the president "get the South on the cheap," as the political scientist Merle Black puts it, allowing Bush to concentrate resources in the battleground states of the upper Midwest. But at least Dean has a strategy for these de-industrialized Midwestern areas. He seems poised to contest them on a protectionist platform--he has called for a renegotiation of all free-trade treaties--which is only a more forthright version of how the unimpeachably "electable" Gephardt intends to run.

The main piece of evidence adduced for Dean's unelectability is his leftism--he's an antiwar McGovernik who will lead his party to a crushing defeat. It's a distinct possibility, but it seems less probable than it did just a few weeks ago. Dean claims to be a centrist, and he may in fact have an easier time moving to the center after the primaries than any of his rivals. The key to this claim would be his budgetary record. Specifically, Dean balanced eleven budgets in Vermont, a state without a balanced-budget amendment. While his Democratic rivals hem and haw about how they didn't really support Bush's tax cuts, Dean has actually promised to undo them, raising taxes across the board to combat the deficit. With the exception of Gephardt, none of the candidates has spoken out as passionately as Dean on this score.

Certainly Dean has his weaknesses. His military service record does not, to put it mildly, bear comparison with John Kerry's. (After getting a military deferment for a back ailment, he moved to Aspen, Colorado, where he boasted of spending 80 days on the ski slopes in a single winter.) And Dean often worsens public misgivings about his lack of military experience with his off-the-cuff foreign policy remarks, such as his pooh-poohing of the killing of Uday and Qusay Hussein.

There is also something phony about Dean's small-state image. His roots in Vermont stretch back not to its dairy-farming past but to its colonization by Ivy League progressives since the 1960s. He can show an occasional arrogance, which might derive from his having been born into the upper reaches of Manhattan high society, the son of an art appraiser and several generations of stockbrokers. And Dean can practice the very shiftiness he purports to critique, as when he refused to tell Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" how his Vermont civil-unions law differs from gay marriage. ("I can't answer that question because it's a legal question.")

But Dean has one overriding strength, and that strength is always in the news. The key to Dean's electoral hopes is George W. Bush. New Republic journalist Jonathan Cohn is one of the few to have stated as much with an appropriate baldness. "If Dean isn't really so liberal," Cohn asked in a recent article, "why do so many liberals love him? A big reason is that he seems as angry as they are." Dean has convinced Democratic voters that he is simply madder at the president than his rivals are--and less capable of doing business with the forces Bush represents. That is the real nature of his extremism. Some Democrats worry--Cohn's New Republic colleague Jonathan Chait, for instance--that Dean will paint himself into a corner by automatically taking the position diametrically opposed to the president's. That may indeed limit Dean's flexibility and cause him trouble in the general election. But the Democratic nominee will be chosen by a base that demands nothing less.

As for the general election, Republicans seem unaware of how riled up Democratic activists remain, even three years after the 2000 elections. A substantial segment of the party's base has been radicalized to the point where it does not recognize the legitimacy of the Bush presidency. This is a very different thing than mere dislike of a president. It means that Democrats are prepared to fight this election as if they were struggling to overthrow a tyrant. One fears that 2004 could wind up--in its rhetoric and its electoral ethics--as the dirtiest general election campaign in living memory. It is not a condemnation of Dean to say that his rise provides another piece of evidence that this fear is well founded.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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