He's been openly campaigning longer than any other Democrat, and he has practically taken up residence in Iowa and New Hampshire. So when former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean announces Monday that he is running for president he is, on one level, stating the obvious.
But Dr. Dean's announcement - delivered one week before the end of the second fundraising period, and one day before a key online primary by a left-wing group - also conveys a pointed message: Don't underestimate his campaign.
Currently in second place in New Hampshire, and tied for second in Iowa, Dean has been drawing bigger crowds than most competitors. At cattle calls and conventions, his fiery rhetoric routinely sparks standing ovations among liberal activists, and he recently won an unofficial poll at the Wisconsin Democratic convention.
Like Sen. John McCain in 2000, Dean is using the Internet to amass a network of supporters - more than 12,000 will gather across the country for Monday's announcement. He's also relying on conventional, if equally aggressive, tactics: Last week, he became the first candidate to go on air, running a TV ad in Iowa.
Of course, nearly every presidential cycle has an insurgent, and Dean may be the latest in a long line of dark horses who generate enthusiasm on the trail, but, without significant money or mainstream backing, fail to win the nomination. Dean's rivals predict he won't sustain his momentum through the fall, when other candidates begin advertising and voters start paying attention.
Still, insurgent campaigns can take off - as in 1976, when a little-known former Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter won the White House. The Dean camp believes 2004 may be one of those rare moments when widespread distrust of Washington insiders - combined with the organizing potential of the Internet - might propel an outsider to victory.
"This is the first great grassroots campaign of the modern era," Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi, asserted in a recent call with reporters. The key, he says, "is to make sure everyone understands that this is real."
The factor with the greatest potential to fuel Dean's campaign may be Iraq. Certainly, much of Dean's momentum has come from his opposition to the war. In the runup to the US invasion, his outspoken antiwar stance won him media attention and many liberal activists' support. More recently, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, and US troops' difficulties in securing the peace have brought more debate - and ammunition.
To some extent, Dean's stance has polarized his party. Centrists have attacked him: This spring, the Democratic Leadership Council warned that he represented "the McGovern-Mondale wing [of the party], defined ... by weakness abroad and elitist, interest-group liberalism at home." But other aspects of his candidacy don't fit the liberal mold: He supports a balanced budget and takes a states' rights position on gun control, spurring some liberal attacks.
To many, Dean's appeal has less to do with his positions than with his bluntness, and a willingness to challenge the administration. Even the enthusiasm he has sparked among many Democrats over the war can be interpreted as "less about the substance of the issue, and more that he was willing to be a contrarian,'" says Jeff Link, an aide to Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who's hosting forums in the first caucus state.
Still, Dean's outspokenness has occasionally gotten him into trouble: On several occasions he has had to recant charges he's made against his opponents. And some of the same unpolished characteristics that drive Dean's appeal on the stump fall flat in more formal settings.
Rival campaigns acknowledge that Dean has tapped into a surprisingly strong vein of liberal rage, not only at President Bush's policies, but at Democrats' perceived timidity. But while this has given Dean short-term momentum, many see it as doomed to failure. "There's a lot of fury in [Dean's] presentation," says Jim Margolis, an adviser to Sen. John Kerry. "That can ... energize the base vote. I don't think it's a very good long-term strategy."
Recent polls show Dean has worked his way into contention in both Iowa and New Hampshire; the question is whether he'd be able to capitalize on strong performances in those states to pull off wins in the wave of primaries that follow. For most insurgents, a lack of money makes it almost impossible to compete at that point, since candidates need to campaign in multiple states at once - typically, by advertising.
But this is where Dean's campaign is pinning its hopes on the Internet. Already, a service called meetup.com has connected thousands of supporters who "meet up" the first Wednesday of every month in locations across the country. If Dean's online network grows, it could form a grass-roots army of volunteers to knock on doors and hand out leaflets.
"They're ... playing this two steps ahead," says Michael Cornfield of the George Washington Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet. "Where the Internet is going to come in handy is not in Iowa or New Hampshire, where you have to be in people's living rooms to get their vote, but immediately thereafter."
It could also prove key financially. Dean has raised more than $1 million online, more than any other candidate has reported. If he wins more than half the votes in Tuesday's online primary by the liberal group MoveOn, he'll gain the endorsement of its 1.4 million members, which analysts estimate could be worth at least $7 million more.