Dean: wounded, maybe, but moving forward

Despite criticism over the confederate flag, he maintains momentum, including with his offer to forgo public financing.

Despite facing some of the most withering attacks of the campaign so far - which this week led him to make a rare public apology - Howard Dean is showing new signs of strength in the Democratic nomination battle.

This week, the former Vermont governor flexed his financial muscle by announcing he was considering opting out of the public financing system, which he said would allow him to compete more effectively against President Bush - assuming he could continue to raise money at his current rate. The move was unprecedented in more ways than one: Not only has no Democrat ever declined federal matching funds, but Dr. Dean chose to leave the final decision up to his supporters, conducting an unusual vote by e-mail and telephone, with the results to be released sometime this weekend.

In addition, Dean was Thursday expected to receive the coveted endorsement of the Service Employees International Union, the largest union in the AFL-CIO, giving him a massive organizational structure on the ground, and giving his campaign a counterweight to charges that he lacks blue-collar and minority support.

These developments come amid a firestorm over Dean's comments about trying to appeal to white Southerners with confederate flags on their pickup trucks - a remark that drew furious criticism from opponents. To some extent, the controversy overshadowed Dean's public-financing announcement: He began his speech by offering regrets for his "clumsy" words. On the network news that night, NBC and CBS focused on the flag controversy; only ABC focused on the campaign-financing vote.

Together, these events underscore Dean's ongoing - but not necessarily unbreakable - hold on the front-runner's spot. For weeks, his lead has made him the focus of the race, and he has shown a talent for monopolizing the spotlight with moves such as this week's financing vote. Yet the intensified scrutiny may eventually work against the outspoken doctor, highlighting any mistakes he may make.

"He's right in the crosshairs," says independent pollster John Zogby.

Of course, Dean has been under attack for weeks, as opponents have picked apart his past positions on issues from Medicare to trade and jumped on other controversial statements he's made. And the Medicare attacks may have slowed Dean's momentum in Iowa, where polls show he is now essentially tied with Rep. Richard Gephardt. But so far, no attack has proven the silver bullet rival campaigns have been hoping for, allowing Dean to maintain - and build on - his momentum.

To some extent, Dean's ability to deflect attacks has been helped by the fact that few voters are paying attention to the race at this point. It may also say something about his rivals' weakness, say analysts. Yet most of all, it may say something about the nature of Dean's supporters - many of whom seem, if anything, to become more passionate in reaction to criticism.

"His supporters are just so intense," says Mr. Zogby. "They like Howard Dean, and they project themselves onto him.... None of the other candidates have been able to capture that."

As Dean adds institutional backing and raises money at a formidable rate, the question is whether, at some point, he will have moved so far ahead that he becomes effectively unstoppable.

But if the attacks raise larger doubts about his character or temperament, rather than his positions on specific issues, they could become a drag. The most significant aspect of this week's flag flap, say critics, was not what Dean said, but that he came across as defensive and even arrogant in his handling of it.

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