Claremont, New Hampshire, Thursday, January 22

OPENING A MID-DAY "town hall" meeting in Claremont, a small New Hampshire town halfway up the state on the Vermont border, Howard Dean made a brief, jokey, and impliedly self-deprecatory joke about the "temperament issue" that's sent his presidential campaign into a tailspin. "I'm a little hoarse," he told his audience. "It's not because of the Iowa screech. I actually have a cold." Dean did not return to the subject--saying nothing more than he's said before--until he was about to leave the Claremont Opera House stage more than an hour later. And that was only in response to an amazingly convenient softball question from someone in the crowd. A crowd, incidentally, that appeared drawn almost entirely from existing, die-hard Dean supporters.

This kind of thing simply isn't going to work. Dean's ten points down in the polls and still heading south, with only four full campaign days left until a primary election he knows he has to win outright. The question "if I become president," he told the folks in Claremont, is something "you will decided on January 27." Wrong. His own troops aren't the problem; Dean's got to win back at least 10 percentage points worth of doubters in New Hampshire. And he's probably got to do it mostly tonight--at the final full-field debate of the primary, at St. Anselm College outside of Manchester. Brushing off that "Howard the Crazy Banshee" image he's stuck with as no big deal, ha ha ha . . . well, would you vote to give such a man the nuclear key codes?

Four hundred Claremonsters will, that's for sure. They gave him multiple standing ovations. Half an hour or so into the Q & A part of the proceedings, one lady seated on the stage behind Dean--wearing a very dignified red, white, and blue sparkly hat--thanked the candidate for "being here as the person that you really are." When "people tell you that you should be behaving differently," she continued, "don't listen to them, Howard." This, too, got a standing ovation.

And then, at the very end, came 43-year-old Doug Cogan, a "researcher for institutional investors," he later told me, and one of those ordinary Americans who just happens currently to be volunteering "four to six hours a day" on Dean's campaign. "When you become a frontrunner, somebody wants to pin a label on you and the label that they've tried to pin is, 'Oh, he's an angry politician,' Cogan told Dean. "Well, we know better here. When I look at you I see hope, I see vision, I see passion, and I thank you for really bringing that out in me." At which point Cogan was drowned out by cheers and applause.

It turned out Mr. Cogan did have an actual question for Gov. Dean, however. This coming Tuesday, primary night "will be your next chance to give a rally speech to your supporters, so my question is this: Next time, how are you going to convey that passion to your supporters and what's it say about your temperament to be president?"

"You ought to understand one thing about the speech I gave in Iowa," Dean replied, as he has several times already, almost verbatim. "There were 3500 kids who cam to Iowa to work their heart out for me. I thought I owed them some passion." Though "this time," he grinned, "there might be just a little less fist pumping."

Ha, ha, ha.

David Tell is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard.

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