WASHINGTON — Hours after Howard Dean made his exit from a presidential race that he, more than anyone, had dominated and defined, his online supporters began grappling with the obvious question: What next?
"I've been thinking about this all day long," posted one. "I will still write in Howard Dean in November."
"Maybe this is for the best," suggested another. "It will be easier to effect change from the outside than as president with an uncooperative congress and entrenched special interests."
"Here is my message to the Democratic establishment," said a third. "NOT A CENT FROM ME!"
In the aftermath of Dr. Dean's failed bid for the White House, the question of what happens to the "Dean movement" - and what it really represented in the first place - remains a pressing one for Democrats. Yet how easily the Dean movement can be transferred to another candidate and, more important, whether it can be harnessed into a winning presidential campaign at all - remains to be seen. Certainly, the former Vermont governor and his following are likely to remain a defining story of the 2004 campaign, with Dean's meteoric rise providing a window into the mood of the Democratic electorate, and the state of US politics.
But Dean's fall may be equally telling - a product of bad strategic decisions and a campaign that in some ways never fully transitioned from a long-shot, outsider movement to a front-running, professional presidential bid.
"The two most amazing events that happened in recent presidential history in my mind are the raising of $40 million and then the squandering of it," says Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist who worked on Rep. Dick Gephardt's campaign. "It's just an extraordinary roller-coaster ride."
To some extent, Dean's inability to channel the power of his anti-establishment movement into a sustained candidacy puts him in a long line of failed insurgents from Gary Hart to Jerry Brown to Ross Perot. And like them, much of what Dean accomplished has paved the way for other campaigns, both in 2004 and beyond.
Dean himself set the tone for much of this year's debate as the first candidate to aggressively challenge Bush, and tap into Democratic anger at the party's timidity in 2002. Dean's strong opposition to the war in Iraq - and his attacks on other Bush policies such as the No Child Left Behind Act - forced his rivals to adopt more critical stances. His fiery rhetoric and fearless posture, many believe, has played a fundamental role in damaging Bush - to the benefit of the Democratic Party and Sen. John Kerry and Sen. John Edwards, both of whom currently lead Bush by double digits in head-to-head matchups.
"Dean's rise from May to December was a critical part of George Bush's collapse in the polls," says Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, a centrist group. "Howard Dean had as much to do with [Bush's declining ratings] as Iraq going bad and jobs not coming back."
Dean's most lasting contribution may be his use of the Internet, and the way his campaign brought together a massive online community that turned into a fundraising juggernaut. Dean smashed his party's fundraising records on the strength of small contributions, and provided a new model for the party, which for years depended on large "soft money" contributions - now illegal under the new campaign finance laws.
Dean's campaign was also the first to have a blog, which allowed supporters to interact with the campaign in a far more direct way. In many respects, the campaign gave supporters unprecedented power, asking them to vote on key decisions, such as opting out of public financing. "There is no doubt in my mind that he's revolutionized campaigning," says Elaine Kamarck, a former Al Gore adviser.
But as is often the case with ground-breaking campaigns, some of the same features that propelled Dean also may have hurt him. While his attacks on Bush helped shift the national debate for the benefit of Democrats, they left him tagged as an "angry" candidate - a label he was never able to overcome.
While Dean's decentralized Internet-based campaign may have energized supporters, it also made for a disorganized and in some ways amateurish operation that was never able to handle the pressure and scrutiny of a front-running campaign.
"Campaigns that win are not necessarily the ones that do the most innovative or imaginative things," says Steve Grossman, Dean's former campaign chair. "They're the ones that make the fewest mistakes."
In the wake of Dean's collapse, his campaign has been criticized for mismanaging its war chest, pouring money into advertising months before key votes. His last-minute Iowa ads, hitting his rivals on the Iraq war, may have backfired, reinforcing an impression of Dean as negative.
His field organization, the largest of any campaign, was by many accounts not well run, with managers in Burlington having little control - or knowledge - of what was happening on the ground in key states.
The campaign also failed to do enough research on their own candidate, and was unprepared for some of the attacks that came their way. The most damaging may have been Dean's statement, made years earlier on a Canadian TV show, that caucuses catered to extremists and special interests. The tape surfaced days before the Iowa caucuses. Internal polls showed Dean's approval ratings dropped by double digits overnight.
Most important, perhaps, Dean himself proved to be an undisciplined campaigner. In the weeks before the Iowa caucuses, he made a series of gaffes. The comments - from suggesting Osama bin Laden should be considered innocent until proven guilty, to his remark that the US was no safer after the capture of Saddam Hussein - created the impression of a candidate out of the mainstream.
He also displayed rigidity, resisting changes to his campaign and style that ultimately kept him from looking convincingly presidential. The former Vermont governor steered away from biography to an almost unprecedented extent, bringing out his wife, for example, only in the final days. While this furthered the impression that the campaign was about his supporters more than about him, it also made Dean an unusually enigmatic front-runner - a candidate who, for all the coverage, may still have seemed too unknown.
Even the major endorsements Dean drew, from Al Gore or Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, seemed inspired more by his successthan by any kind of personal approval or loyalty. By contrast, Kerry spent his final days in Iowa campaigning with Sen. Ted Kennedy and with a man whose life he'd saved in Vietnam, both of whom testified to Kerry's character.
Indeed, some observers say the Dean movement always seemed about much more than the candidate himself. Dean for America represented a network - a way to feel connected and empowered - in which the campaign for the presidency became an almost secondary goal.
The community's future political usefulness may hinge on Dean's ability to focus it around a new goal, as Sen. John McCain did by steering his insurgent movement toward the issue of campaign finance reform.
"His capacity to take them along with him depends a lot on his coming up with a fresh message," says Michael Cornfield, an expert on politics and the Internet.