For Dean, a test of grass roots' tenacity

A campaign famed for its organization faces a new challenge: Win voters back to the candidate.

The Dean Machine is still well oiled and operating. And now, it's clean: Mary Heslin took the 1987 Toyota plastered with Howard Dean signs to the car wash and it survived, every bumper sticker intact. But since the former Vermont governor's plummet in the polls, Ms. Heslin - an unapologetic Deaniac - does drive a bit more slowly than she used to. "I want to be sure a lot more people have to pass me on the highway" she says, smiling. "I want to be sure they see me."

In the end, all of the antics and shoe-leather work of Mr. Dean's vaunted grass-roots organization may not be enough to save him in New Hampshire's crucial primary next Tuesday. While volunteers are vital to any campaign, especially in multi-candidate primaries, Dean's fortunes will likely pivot on the candidate himself - his message and public persona. "You can have the best organization in the world, but if voters change their minds it won't help you, and could even hurt," says Dick Bennett, the chief pollster for the American Research Group.

Primary precedent

Some suggest Dean's grass-roots organization was, in fact, a mixed blessing at best in Iowa. They credit it with helping to spur the record turnout in Iowa. The problem is, many of those voters didn't vote for Dean.

His advisers contend that weeks of attacks by rivals and increasingly negative media scrutiny took their toll. But others point to Dean's own missteps, and the earnest, orange-hatted army of out-of-staters that some say alienated Iowa's caucusgoers. While there are no orange hats in New Hampshire, Dean and his machine face a similar challenge here. And analysts say there's a historical precedent: George H. W. Bush's 1980 campaign.

Three weeks before the primary, Bush's political organization had identified his likely voters, and come primary day, it got them to the polls, according to Mr. Bennett. The only problem was, many of them had already switched to Ronald Reagan. "They were driving Reagan voters to the polls," says Bennett.

But Dean's hard-core supporters are counting on the former Vermont governor to win back disaffected voters. Ms. Heslin insists she's getting the same reactions as before when she drives her Dean Machine - smiles, honks, and a few thumbs up. But in this make-or-break state for the onetime front-runner, polls show a steady erosion of support. Close advisers admit that Dean must reverse that trend, and come in either first or second if the once-vaunted political machine is to survive and move into the coming primaries.

Dean himself, chastened by the first loss of his political career and an avalanche of criticism over his Iowa concession speech, has shifted from his "red meat rhetoric" back to the kind of earnest policy speeches that in Vermont helped win him the nickname "Ho Ho" - because he was always perceived as a little ho-hum.

'No retooling going on here'

Down at Dean headquarters, on the banks of the Merrimack River, hundreds of volunteers are still dialing phones, checking databases, and stacking signs.

"There's no retooling going on here," says Mathew Gardner, Dean's New Hampshire press secretary. "We're right on track, we're not doing anything different here."

But the pronounced shift away from Dean is evident not only in the polls, but on the icy streets and in warm bookstores throughout the Granite State.

Adam Olson, a chef from Newmarket, was considering Dean, but after seeing the video clip from his Iowa concession speech

he is "less likely" to vote for him. "If our president had a temper like that, I'd be kind of scared," he says.

For others, the shift in support has more to do with the behavior of the other candidates.

"Partly it's Dean's fault for the shriek he made, but it has more to do with what Kerry and Edwards have done," says Jim Walsh, a history professor at New England College in Henniker. "They have stayed on message and have been very positive."

The last time pollsters here remember such a precipitous drop in the polls was with Bill Clinton in 1992, when the Gennifer Flowers scandal broke. He overcame it, in part, by addressing the issue in an extraordinary "60 Minutes" appearance with his wife, buying an hour of TV time for live town-hall debate, and campaigning furiously throughout New Hampshire.

The struggle - and search - goes on

Dean is trying to replicate that comeback, but analysts contend he may not have time before next Tuesday's vote.

"It's like falling in love, once you're out of love it's hard to get back in," says Andy Smith of the UNH Survey Center in Dartmouth. "If there is such a thing as the Dean Machine, it will only work if you've got people who are willing to be used by it, who are generally favorable toward the candidate. He's going to have a very, very tough time turning this around."

Professor Smith says he expects Dean to "hit a base, and it's going to be a fairly large base" - but he'll have to work back from there.

Still, Dean will have lots of help: Deaniacs, like Mary Heslin, have been energized by what they see as the media's mischaracterization of his Iowa speech.

"If you looked at it, he wasn't angry - he had a big smile on his face when he finished and turned around," she says.

Others in this state, where almost a third of voters remain undecided, are staying open-minded. "I'm going to keep looking at what he stands for," says Linda McLane a schoolteacher from Pittsfield, "and not on what he does in one state and not what the TV shows me."

Noel Paul contributed to this report from Concord, N.H.

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