Dean pushes on as Wisconsin Primary draws near

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(Host) Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean has criss-crossed Wisconsin in recent days in an intense drive to save his sagging campaign. Polls show Dean faces the possibility of coming in third in Tuesday’s primary. Yet Dean denied reports on Sunday that he’ll quit the race if he loses badly in Wisconsin.

VPR’s John Dillon is following the campaign and reports from Milwaukee:

(Dillon) Dean opened his push in Wisconsin a week ago with a new slogan: “Real choice, real change.” But much of the message he takes to voters is the same as he’s sounded for over a year.

At a health care forum in Milwaukee on Sunday, he talks up his achievements as governor. He says he could build on Vermont’s model and extend health coverage to those without insurance.

(Dean) “I think we can have health insurance for everybody under 18 in the first 100 days of my becoming president.”

(Dillon) Mary Beth Budisch of Milwaukee was in the audience and says she appreciated Dean’s grasp of the issues.

(Budisch) “I was really impressed with his health care program. I haven’t heard anybody go into so much detail as he did and it sounds like it’s a doable thing.”

(Dillon) Budisch says that after hearing Dean, she’s leaning toward voting for him. But she isn’t sold yet. There’s another candidate who may get her vote.

(Budisch) “Maybe Edwards. But since he didn’t show up today, I’ll just have to watch the debate tonight and see what he has to say.”

(Dillon) And that illustrates a big problem for Dean. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry is the clear front runner. But Dean, who once staked the survival of his presidential race on Wisconsin, has lost ground to North Carolina Senator John Edwards.

And just as winning creates momentum, losing causes a downward spiral. Dean’s campaign appearances have drawn smaller crowds. Sunday’s health care forum had empty seats. And the pack of reporters who regularly follow him has dwindled as well.

And even as Dean fights for every vote, his campaign is seemingly in disarray. His campaign chairman, who is not with Dean in Wisconsin, told reporters that he would shift his support to Kerry if Dean loses the state. The chairman, Steven Grossman, has reportedly counseled Dean to drop out of the race if he fails to win this week as expected. Dean denied on Sunday that he was planning to quit the contest. And Steve McMahon, Dean’s top media adviser, says he can’t explain the campaign’s mixed messages.

(McMahon) “I don’t know how they’re coming out of the campaign. All I can say is this. I was with Howard Dean just a little while ago, shortly before the debate. He didn’t mention those plans to me. He didn’t mention those plans to any of the senior strategists who were in the room. There are a lot of well-intentioned people who are speculating as to what Howard may or may not do. He’ll make that decision in his way, in his own time and he’ll announce when it’s appropriate.”

(Dillon) Wisconsin has 72 delegates. Any candidate who gets at least 15 percent of the vote is entitled to share a portion of the total. But beyond the delegate count, a victory here would boost a campaign that has lost 16 primaries or caucuses in a row.

Marquette University political science professor Andrew Barrett says that’s unlikely, because Dean has failed to connect with many voters here.

(Barret) “We’re a pretty moderate state. We do lean a little to the left, but there are only a few bastions of liberalism here. But the rest of the state is fairly moderate and conservative. And so Dean isn’t a natural fit for this particular state and there really hasn’t been a big Dean surge, even when he was the front runner.”

(Dillon) The campaign and the candidate are starting to talk about what’s next. During Sunday night’s Democratic debate Dean promised to support Kerry, if the Massachusetts senator is the nominee. And McMahon, Dean’s media adviser, says Democrats have to harness the core of grassroots supporters who launched Dean’s candidacy with Internet organizing and millions of dollars in small donations.

(McMahon) “I think both the Party and the Kerry campaign are pretty well aware of the assets Howard Dean would bring to the table. It’s not just the 600,000 people who have signed up to support him. He’s bringing new people into the process. He’s energizing the Party. He’s giving it back its voice and its soul and that’s something that this Party needs and it’s needed it for a long time. And Howard Dean provided it. And I think the Kerry campaign and the DNC would be very well advised to recognize that and should figure out the best way – should John Kerry be the nominee – to maintain the energy and the enthusiasm of the Dean campaign all across the country.”

(Dillon) But Dean for now wants that energy and enthusiasm for himself. He’ll continue his relentless push around the state until the votes are counted Tuesday.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Milwaukee.

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