WASHINGTON — Last Wednesday evening, about 150 people poured into a small restaurant in the shadow of the Washington Hilton to talk about former Vermont governor and current Democratic presidential aspirant Howard Dean. They were mostly young, mostly white, and highly motivated.
How highly motivated? When the campaign staffers gave each of them the names and addresses of three voters in Iowa and asked them to pen a personal note telling those voters why they should support Mr. Dean, they diligently set about their task. It was hot and crowded and there was little writing space to be found, but many stayed and wrote. Some even asked for extra names and addresses to write to from home.
It would be easy to write this off as being young in Washington. Politics can hit idealistic 20-somethings pretty hard here at times. Who knows the number of sad dates that wind up being dinner and tickets to be part of the studio audience of "Crossfire"?
But Dean's gathering didn't take place just in Washington. Thanks to a website called meetup.com, similar meetings took place in cities nationwide, where one can only assume legions of young Deanites dutifully penned odes to Howard seeking to get out the vote for him in the Iowa caucuses.
And then there is that most real of political indicators, money. In the second quarter of 2003, Dean took in $7.5 million - much of it over the Internet - more than any other Democratic presidential hopeful during that period.
All of this has many in the press wondering what exactly is going on. Early on it was presumed that Dean was a second-tier candidate, possible vice presidential timber. Now the political scribes are taking a second look. Suddenly, it seems, Howard Dean is the hot topic of much of the presidential coverage for the three or four of you who are actually reading about an election still 17 months out. But much of that coverage is missing the point about Dean, labeling him an Internet phenomenon, an experiment in "e-politics."
It is true that much of the governor's support can be tied to the Internet and to meetup.com, a website that helps organize local interest groups on everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to pug ownership to ... well, Howard Dean. But what has yet to be answered is whether Dean's support exists because of the Internet, or whether the Internet activity is a manifestation of Dean's support.
It may well be the latter. On meetup.com's home page the number of members interested in "Dungeons and Dragons" is 2,700. The number listed for "Star Trek" is 1,700. The number listed for "Dean in 2004" is 57,800. Who would have thought Dean would have more online fans than Mr. Spock?
Many of the supporters who turned out for the former governor last Wednesday said their support had less to do with Dean's presence on the Internetthan with Dean himself. Their interest in him came from two primary areas. One, they liked the fiery speeches he's been delivering on the stump - which proves people actually do watch political speeches on C-SPAN. Two, they perceive Dean as a straight talker. Even if they do not agree with him, they believe he is honest and sticks to his convictions.
For example, Dean himself likes to cite his support of gun owners and his feeling that the federal government should stay out of gun control as part of his straight-talking bona fides. And he has consistently trumpeted his opposition to the war in Iraq, even as the public strongly supported it.
In fact, when you look closely, Dean's campaign may not represent a new approach to "e-politics" as much as it represents a flashback to the 2000 campaign of Arizona Sen. John McCain. Mr. McCain and his rebellious straight-talk express went further than most imagined, pushing then-Gov. George W. Bush hard, and beating him in key states.
If that's Dean's map, it may be a smart choice. Insurgent candidacies are tolerated more readily in the Democratic Party than the GOP. And judging from last Wednesday, he's already got a small machine of invested volunteers in the wings.
But there are risks as well. Straight talking is easy when no one is watching. But as the press turns its attention to Dean, his road gets much tougher. His recent appearance on "Meet the Press," perhaps overly panned by the political critics, at the very least had a not-ready-for-prime-time feel about it.
Second-tier candidates usually get a pass on such moments. Dean's not second tier anymore.