Manchester, New Hampshire, Thursday, January 22
THE RESIDENTS of Deanworld, once merrily engaged in permanent offense, have gone into the bunker. After a pre-debate rally tonight, busloads of Deaniacs converged on Jillian's, a hip bar/pool hall/arcade on the west side of town. With Klieg lights carving up the night sky, the Deaniacs are excited for tonight's showdown, hoping that Howard Dean will stop the bleeding and perhaps even start the turnaround.
Inside, staffers and volunteers huddle in little groups extolling the "fantastic energy" at the rally, but by the time the debate begins, they seem to have come down from their rally high. Where they were once sublimely confident, the Deaniacs are now alternately surly, fatalistic, and, more than anything else, paranoid.
For one thing, the Dean campaign has taken on a suspicious attitude toward the media. It is campaign policy that no staffer or volunteer is allowed to speak to any member of the media on any topic without receiving permission from the press staff. So, for instance, when one intern is asked how she thought Dean handled his first question in the debate, she says nervously, "I thought he was really good--but I don't really think I'm supposed to say that to you." Another volunteer, explaining she didn't want to talk, said, "I don't trust the media after Iowa and the way they twisted everything around."
This last sentiment is echoed many times. Ann Marker, a volunteer who's been commuting from Newton, Massachusetts, claimed that "The media has been out to get him, especially since Monday. It's so cruel and unfair--he was speaking to 3,000 people and the press lowered a high-tech microphone down."
Summing up the mood, one doughy fellow bellows, "The media are here to pronounce us dead--don't let them---make some noise when Howard comes on--fuck the media!"
DURING THE DEBATE, the crowd shows what they really think of the other candidates. As soon as John Kerry mentions Vietnam, a lady at the next table mutters, "oh yeah, he's a war hero;" another Deaniac complains about Wesley Clark, saying that "all he does is talk about how he really is a Democrat." But it's telling that most of the scorn is reserved for Joe Lieberman, a candidate who poses no threat to Dean's chances. There are boos and hisses nearly every time Lieberman appears onscreen, the most vociferous ones coming as he recounts a letter of support he recently received from the father of a Marine.
The level of preoccupation with Dean's rivals is one thing, but a more revealing moment occurs late in the debate when Dean, in answer to a question, begins rattling off a list of states. The crowd collectively holds its breath and there are murmurs of "uh-oh . . . uh-oh . . ."
THE DEANIACS STILL BELIEVE in Dean ("He's so sexy," one young lady purrs. "I don't know why, but he's damn sexy."), and they still believe in the righteousness of their cause, but it isn't clear that they still believe they will win. Asked whether or not Dean would take New Hampshire, more than one staffer admitted that they thought it unlikely. The old victory scenario was that Dean's money, endorsements, and organization would have the nomination all but sealed by early February. The new Dean victory scenario is that he triumphs in the long run because he has money and a 50-state campaign--and insiders admit that even this assumes that he doesn't fall to a lagging third next Tuesday, an eventuality which they aren't willing to preclude.
Yet in their hour of despair, the Deaniacs may be missing some good news. Dean's decision to keep a low post-Iowa profile might work. For the last two days he has been nearly invisible in New Hampshire. Much of his time was spent at home in Vermont, where he and his wife sat for a lengthy, Gennifer Flowers-style interview with Diane Sawyer.
While he failed to defuse questions about his temperament during the debate, the Sawyer interview was a homerun: Dean was funny, self-deprecating, candid, and warm. As both a mea culpa and a reintroduction, it was a resounding success.
The interview aired on ABC's "Primetime" immediately after the debate. At Jillian's, half of the Dean contingent--normally so attentive to their candidate's every utterance--had already left.
Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.