For those on Howard Dean's "Sleepless Summer Tour,Ó Sunday begins a little after 5 a.m. in a Milwaukee airport hotel, where we board the busses that take us to the chartered 737--dubbed the "Grassroots ExpressÓ by the campaign--for a flight to Boise. There, on a corner of the airport tarmac between two hangars, the former Vermont governor and surging presidential candidate delivers his standard white-hot anti-Bush stump speech before several hundred Idaho liberals.
But this time there's a new, and seemingly spontaneous, wrinkle. Spotting an American flag at the side of the podium, Dean runs over and grabs it in what looks like a white-knuckled death grip.
"This flag doesn't belong to John Ashcroft and the right wing of the Republican Party,Ó Dean bellows. "This flag belongs to the people of the United States of America--and we're going to TAKE IT BACK.Ó
As happens at all of Dean's appearances these days, the crowd erupts in thunderous applause. But Boise is still Republican territory, and the morning rally was just a warm-up for the day's double-header main events: Portland and Seattle, where Dean is king.
Back in May, Dean drew a capacity crowd of 1,200 to a Seattle rally--and that was back when he was an obscure insurgent; a second-tier guy among nine politicians vying for the Democratic presidential nomination. Now he's a political superstar, and the burning question is: how big are the crowds going to be?
Portland is very, very big. Surrounding a stage backed by a huge blue "Generation DeanÓ banner set up on the Portland State University square, some 4,000 screaming adherents to the cult of Howard Dean gather. When Dean comes out on stage, he describes the turnout as "unbelievable.Ó Then Dean lets it rip. The attendees cheer everything he says, though they cheer loudest when Dean discusses his opposition to the Iraq invasion.
It is mostly young, mostly white, mostly liberal, but also mostly mainstream--for the most part it isn't your hippy-dippy hard left protest crowd. If there's one thing Dean's surging campaign is proving on this trip, it's that even mainstream democrats hate George W. Bush. Later, Dean, red-faced from the sun and his shirt dripping with sweat, enters the pressroom.
"We need to win in Oregon,Ó he says. "And we're going to win in Oregon.Ó All candidates are fond of predicting victory, but after a rally like this, Dean's prediction seems more than just bravado.
TAKING BACK THE COUNTRY
Arriving in Seattle, his predictions appear truer than ever. Downtown on that Sunday afternoon, 8,000 screaming liberals gather to cheer the man they hope will save America from George W. Bush. If it's not obvious before the breakneck "Sleepless Summer TourÓ--encompassing 10 cities in under four days--there is no doubt by the end of the evening: Seattle is an impregnable Dean bastion.
He marvels at the size of the roaring crowd as he stands before a huge "Jobs for AmericaÓ backdrop. "Holy cow!Ó he exclaims. "This is the biggest rally Dean for America has ever seen.Ó
The previous record for a Dean rally was set only hours before in Portland. Now, facing a crowd that's twice the size, Dean pauses for a moment, grinning the mischievous grin of a teenage boy who has just pulled one over on the adults in authority.
Dean's speech gets off to a low-key start--at least by Dean standards. Perhaps the candidate is worn out from lack of sleep. Seattle is the fifth stop on the tour, and, having been along for every leg of the trip so far, I know I'm feeling exhausted, dirty, and hot.
Dean tells the crowd that the president is destroying the economy with his tax cuts, losing jobs, and starving desperately needed social programs. The Bush administration, he contends, is ignoring the debacle that is American health care, and ignoring the growing ranks of the uninsured. The thousands of formerly self-doubting liberals spread out before him roars its approval.
When he begins to tick off a list of the untruths the Bush administration used to justify the Iraq invasion, each time beginning with, "The president told us... Ó the crowd goes crazy. There was no link between the Iraqi regime and al Qaida, he says, despite what the president told us. There were no uranium purchases from Niger. Iraq was not on the verge of developing nuclear weapons, he says. Our government falsely claimed to know where the weapons of mass destruction were, he says.
"Lies,Ó the crowd shouts.
Dean derisively refers to President Bush as the "tough fella defending AmericaÓ who cut veterans' health care and service members' pay, who skimps on homeland security, and who stands idly by as North Korea moves toward stockpiling nuclear arms.
"The president is all hat and no cattle when it comes to defense,Ó he asserts, and the cutting aggression in his voice--not to mention his metaphorical jab at the rancher-in-chief--lets the crowd know who the real tough guy will be in a match-up between George and Howard.
Dean doesn't end his speech on the topic of Iraq, despite it being the clear crowd-pleaser. He touts his forthcoming economic plan, which he says will be geared toward boosting small businesses rather than large corporations, since small businesses won't export jobs overseas. And as he has throughout this campaign, Dean lays into the Democratic Party for abandoning its principles in a failed quest for greater electoral success.
"I'll make you proud to vote Democrat again... You have the power to take this party back and make it stand for something again,Ó he tells the cheering throng. "We're going to take our country back.Ó
THE DEAN MACHINE
Rallies like the ones in Portland, Seattle, and San Antonio far exceed any expectations; so much so that the candidate, his staff, and the press along for the ride all seem equally stunned. How can the crowds be so passionate and so large given it's still the summer of 2003--a good five months before the Iowa caucus kicks off the nominating season?
In a park in Falls Church, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., more than 3,000 come out. After a flight to Milwaukee, a 10:00 p.m. rally on a Saturday night in an airplane hangar draws 800 supporters. After his speech, I speak with 21-year-old Chrys VanderKamp, who drove six hours from Minnesota with a friend to attend the event. I ask her why she's so devoted to Dean.
"He has the ability to inspire people,Ó she says.
After Milwaukee the tour hits Boise, Portland, and Seattle on Sunday. While Idaho is safely Republican, the Dean campaign says it intends to compete in all 50 states. And in Idaho, hundreds of Dean supporters turn out at the airport. Less than an hour later we are back on the plane for the flight to Portland. In Oregon, Dean has prominent supporters who appear on stage with him, including Secretary of State Bill Bradbury and former Governor Barbara Roberts.
After Dean's Portland rally, Bradbury tells me that like so many of the former governor's early supporters, he was initially attracted to Dean because of the candidate's forthright opposition to unilateral intervention in Iraq. However, he was won over for good after learning more about Dean's centrist record in Vermont. Bradbury's support is particularly significant, since he is not only a centrist Democrat, but also a former chair of the Democratic Leadership Council in Oregon.
National DLC leaders have launched fierce attacks on Dean as his star has risen, painting him as a soft-on-defense liberal extremist who will lead the party to electoral disaster if he wins the nomination. So far those attacks have largely backfired, damaging the DLC's reputation among rank-and-file Democrats more than they have hurt Dean.
As Washington State Democratic Party chair Paul Berendt expresses it, "There's magic around Howard Dean.Ó
ON BOARD THE "GRASSROOTS EXPRESS"
There's not a lot of magic on Howard Dean's plane. For the crowds at the rallies, it's all excitement and energy and red meat. For those of us on the plane--reporters and campaign staffers alike--it's all cramped airline seats, bag lunches, warm sodas, and uncomfortable bus rides to the rallies. When we do make it to a hotel, we only score about three or four hours of sleep before boarding Dean's chartered 1960s-era 737, the "Grassroots Express.Ó It is a grueling pace. On the plane, Dean admits the schedule is tiring. He's able to draw energy from his growing throngs of energized supporters. Unfortunately, I'm not.
Still, there is some fun to be had on the Grassroots Express. As the already bedraggled press corps is being checked through security on the tarmac of Portland International Airport on Saturday afternoon, 24 hours and four cities into the tour, Dean stands off to the side mimicking his most distinctive stump-speech gestures for one of the photographers who now chronicle his every public move. He raises his arms from his side into a two-thumbs-up pose while mouthing, "You have the power,Ó the signature slogan he shouts repeatedly to close many of his campaign appearances. The rest of the press waiting to board the chartered 737 watches the spectacle and titters. Then Dean stops, chuckling at the sheer ridiculousness of it all.
There are other light moments. On Tuesday morning, Dean boards the plane at 6:00 a.m. for the flight to Chicago. Looking at campaign manager Joe Trippi--who has emerged as a cult figure among Dean supporters and political operatives for his prescient use of the internet to build Dean's campaign--Dean mentions he has just read an excellent article in a San Antonio daily touting the internet's ability to revolutionize grassroots organizing. The article quotes Jim Jordan, John Kerry's campaign manager, about the net's potential.
"Eat your heart out, Joe Trippi,Ó Dean tells his web-organizing guru between peals of laughter.
Such is life these days for the only candidate with discernible momentum in the race to capture the Democratic presidential nomination. It's easy under such circumstances to laugh off the slights, and to enjoy the string of successes.
DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS
It's clear the Dean campaign is engaged in an effort to broaden his appeal beyond the core of white, liberal anti-Bush activists. The campaign's effort to reach out to minorities is evident at almost every stop on the tour, as black and Hispanic warm-up speakers share the stage with the former governor.
After over-nighting in Seattle, the Grassroots Express flies to Spokane for a town-hall meeting in a poor and racially diverse neighborhood known as Felony Flats. Organizers had expected a couple of hundred at most; 900 people show up.
After Spokane, we fly down to Texas. A $125-and-up Monday-afternoon fundraiser in an Austin roadhouse draws more than 500. That night in San Antonio, several thousand Texans show up to hear a supercharged Dean.
As I listen to Dean speak in city after city, it also becomes clear he is shifting the emphasis in his stump speech to highlight his more moderate views. While he continues to criticize the Iraq war, he is now giving greater priority to the economy and his plans for creating jobs and balancing the budget. It may seem risky for Dean to shift his emphasis away from his signature issue--his early, passionate, and prescient opposition to invading Iraq made him a hero to Bush-hating lefties. Won't he risk losing support if he overemphasizes his moderate stands on other issues? But Dean's entire campaign has been about taking risks, defying expectations, and upsetting the conventional wisdom.
BRING THE MONEY
The Democratic presidential nomination, which will be decided over a frenzied six-week period beginning in January, is now Dean's to lose. He is not yet a classic front-runner--he lacks the party support for that--but as campaign manager Joe Trippi says during an in-flight interview, Dean is mounting "the strongest insurgency in the history of the [Democratic] Party.Ó While insurgent candidacies almost always collapse in the face of the superior financial and institutional support marshaled by the Establishment front-runner, this nominating cycle is different, Trippi argues. Never before has an insurgent shot to the top of the heap before a consensus Establishment candidate has emerged.
The latest polls show Dean leading in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states to apportion delegates first. And the polls show Dean's support building across much of the rest of the country. Last quarter, Dean raised a stunning $7.6 million, more than any of the other, better-known candidates, with much of that coming in over the internet. Some of the political reporters on the plane speculate that Dean could pull in as much as $10 million this quarter, though Trippi says it's impossible to know how much money the campaign will raise at this point.
It is this influx of money that has made a high-profile, general-election-style national campaign swing like the "Sleepless Summer TourÓ possible. The fundraising has also brought credibility with the media. Recently, Dean had the pleasure of seeing himself on the cover of Time and Newsweek--as well as being the subject of an inside spread in U.S. News & World Report--all in the same week. Unless one of the other guys can beat him in Iowa (Gephardt) or New Hampshire (Kerry), it will be difficult if not impossible to halt his momentum--which doesn't mean, of course, that Dean will win if he winds up being nominated. Bush, despite everything, is still popular, although his poll numbers have fallen off dramatically. Nevertheless, all bets are off if the situation in Iraq stabilizes in the next six months--though that seems increasingly unlikely--or if the economy rebounds strongly.
CHARGE UP THE BASE
Dean's ability to fire up his audiences has those who knew him in Vermont scratching their heads. During his 11-year run as governor, Dean was not known as a scintillating speaker.
"I was a bore,Ó Dean cheerfully concedes when I point this out to him on the plane. He attributes his new style to his willingness to speak off-the-cuff. "I don't speak well from prepared texts,Ó he says. Now at his appearances on the campaign trail, Dean speaks without notes. The various themes in his stump speech remain the same from appearance to appearance, though he articulates them with a slight difference at each stop. Not having to repeat his message by rote is the secret to his newfound performance ability, he believes.
There is more to it than that. The liberal activists who hold decisive sway in the nominating process appear to be casting their lot with the candidate--despite his centrist views and record. The reason is that rightly or wrongly--and there are many politically astute observers who believe the latter--they believe the only hope of defeating Bush in 2004 is unchecked aggression and unconflicted partisanship; two key hallmarks of the Dean campaign from the outset. (And hallmarks, it should be said, of every successful Republican campaign for president in the last 30 years.)
This is a lesson that Newt Gingrich taught the Republican Party, one that the Democratic Party has yet to learn--save Howard Dean. The reality today is that the number of swing voters is small, and the country is so divided, that you win elections by charging up your base. It's a willingness to go after Bush without reserve that has driven Dean to the top of the pack.
The tour is confirming Dean's status as a heavyweight contender. Drawing crowds to make the other candidates green with envy, and inspiring white-hot passion in those audiences, Dean is making a statement, and the press is all ears. He is now treated by reporters like what he is--a major political player--and by the public like what he is becoming--a political rock star.
But a continuance of this trend is not at all a sure thing. Five months is a lifetime in politics, and the Dean camp is bracing for a slew of attacks from other candidates. Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman has begun touting himself as the centrist anti-Dean, following his DLC allies in branding Dean an extremist.
"We expect to be attacked, of course,Ó Dean tells the press en route to Chicago. Asking if he will fight back, he smiles, clearly itching for the fight. "We'll deal with that when we get there,Ó he says.
Meanwhile, the aggressive risk-taking tactics of the Dean campaign continue. Dean has been the first to hire full-time state coordinators in eight early primary and caucus states. He was the first to air television ads in Iowa, New Hampshire--even Texas, while the president vacationed nearby. On Tuesday morning, Trippi holds an impromptu press conference on the plane to announce that this quarter the campaign expects to break Bill Clinton's record haul (for a Democrat) in a year prior to a presidential election. (Clinton raised $10.3 million in the third quarter of 1995.) Because of this bounty, the campaign will begin running television ads in cities in six states this week. Total cost: about $1 million.
Dean is taking nothing for granted and intends to build on his momentum by placing ads in the Northwest. Isn't this simply "preaching to the choir?Ó No. Refer back to the playbook: Keep your base fired up. Dean has a huge, activist, energetic base, and he intends to keep them revved up.
Toward the end of the tour when one of the other reporters aboard the Grassroots Express asked Dean to describe his most personal moment, Dean referred to the rallies of the Northwest.
"The enormity of it all really struck me,Ó he said. "For the first time I realized what it really means to be President of the United States--seeing all those people out there, counting on you.Ó