As Democratic presidential candidates compete for the "anti-Dean" mantle, the former Vermont governor is showing new signs of strength.
Despite weeks of intensified attacks from his rivals, and some unexpected twists in the race - including the addition of a prominent new candidate - Howard Dean still holds a 10-point lead in New Hampshire, and a slightly smaller lead in Iowa.
More striking, he's become the unequivocal leader in the race for cash. Over the past three months, Dr. Dean raised around $15 million, handily beating Bill Clinton's Democratic record of $10.3 million - and doubling or even tripling the take of his closest competitors.
The new fundraising figures come amid some recent developments that have given boosts to other candidates. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark's late entrance to the race brought a surge of media attention, and catapulted him to the top of some national polls. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts has come out with a string of prominent endorsements, including former presidential candidate Gary Hart, former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.
But in the measurements that matter most at this stage of the race, Dean is dominating - indicating what a challenge the rest of the field may face in trying to topple him.
"If you're ahead in Iowa, ahead in New Hampshire, and raising the most money, you're the front runner," says Charlie Cook, an independent political analyst. "This nomination is going to Howard Dean unless and until someone takes it away from him."
Of course, with more than three months to go before voters head to the polls, there's still plenty of time for the dynamics to change. Analysts point out that early polls can be unpredictable, and money doesn't necessarily translate into votes.
But it's also true that 13 of the past 14 major party nominations have gone to the candidate who won Iowa or New Hampshire or both. And 9 of the past 10 nominations have gone to the candidate who raised the most money in the year before the election.
Certainly, as the race enters its most intense phase - and the final fundraising quarter of the year - Dean's prowess both reflects and will likely add to his overall momentum.
For one thing, money will play an increasingly important role in the campaign in weeks to come, as candidates begin bulking up their field organizations and rolling out television ads in key primary states.
And significantly, Dean is the only candidate on the Democratic side who has greatly improved his cash intake from quarter to quarter. Most of the other candidates' fundraising has plateaued or even declined over the year: Sen. John Edwards, for example, who led the pack at the end of the first quarter with $7.4 million, was expected to come in toward the bottom of the field for the third quarter, with around $3 million.
Dean's fundraising ability may also be a better indicator of his overall support, since a greater proportion of his contributions have come from small donors, many contributing over the Internet.
To some observers, Dean's fundraising strength is less noteworthy than the relative weakness of some of his rivals - who may find themselves struggling to compete as the cost of campaigning escalates in coming months.
Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, for example, was expected to raise around $2 million this quarter, bringing his total for the year to roughly $5 million.
"The real story isn't so much that Dean's way in front - it's that some candidates are way behind," says Clyde Wilcox, a political scientist at Georgetown University. "If you don't have enough money to advertise, if you don't have enough money to fly your planes and get to key states, then you're in deep trouble."
Adding to the financial pressure on Democrats is the backdrop of President Bush's war chest. In the past three months alone, Mr. Bush raised almost $50 million - more than tripling Dean's take, and bringing the president's total for the year to around $84 million. In just one day this week, Bush raised $5.3 million, beating the total haul of many Democrats for the entire quarter.
Bush's sizeable fundraising advantage - and the fact that he will not take federal matching funds and so will not be hampered by spending limits - has led both Dean and Kerry to consider opting out of public financing as well, a move that may become even more likely in the wake of Dean's recent fundraising success.
Still, analysts say many of the Democratic candidates have raised enough overall to remain more than viable for the time being. Senator Kerry, who's next behind Dean in fundraising totals, has exceeded $20 million for the year so far. Likewise, Senator Edwards is expected to total around $15 million for the year, with. Rep. Richard Gephardt and Sen. Joseph Lieberman expected to come in behind that.
The biggest unknown remains newcomer Clark, who raised three-quarters of a million dollars in his first few days in the race and was expected to report around $2.5 million for the quarter - a relatively strong number, given his brief candidacy.
Yet some analysts remain skeptical: Early fundraising success is not necessarily a guarantee of ongoing strength, since candidates often tap their most ardent supporters first. And Clark will still have a big deficit to overcome if he is to compete with the overall cash totals of rivals such as Dean and Kerry.
"It's always relatively easy to get the low-hanging fruit," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "[Clark] would have to raise an enormous sum in the fourth quarter to even come close to where Dean is going to be. That's highly unlikely."