Dean weighs campaign’s future after loss in Wisconsin

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(Host) After finishing third in the Wisconsin primary, Howard Dean flew back to Vermont with the future of his presidential campaign very much in doubt. But in a fiery speech to supporters Tuesday night, he said the work of transforming his party and the political process had only just begun.

VPR’s John Dillon reports from Wisconsin:

(Dillon) Wisconsin marked the seventeenth loss for Dean, who just two months ago led the race in the polls and fundraising. After the votes were counted, Dean finished far behind Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and North Carolina Senator John Edwards.

Supporters gathered in a small, flag draped ballroom in a downtown Madison hotel. Dean remained defiant after his defeat.

(Dean) “We are not done!”
(Crowd, chanting) “Dean! Dean! Dean!”

(Dillon) In recent days, Dean has taken credit for shaping the national debate on President Bush’s record. Dean says his early willingness to challenge the Iraq War, the growing budget deficit, and issues such as the No Child Left Behind Act, helped clear the way for his more successful rivals. And in his speech Tuesday night, he urged a new reform effort that would start with his own party.

(Dean) “We together have only begun our work. People have said that we have begun to transform the Democratic Party, some people even say we already have. But the transformation we have wrought is a transformation of convenience, not of conviction. And we have to fight, to fight and fight and fight until it becomes a transformation of conviction.”

(Dillon) Dean raised more money than any Democrat in the race. And he did it powered by small donations, much of it collected through the Internet. He’s called for new limits on campaign contributions. And he sounded that theme again in Wisconsin.

(Dean) “We need real campaign finance reform to get the special interests out of Washington. You have done that and we are not done yet together.”

(Dillon) But while Dean’s message on the campaign trail may have been clear, his message about his own future was more muddied. A week ago, Dean said a defeat here would end his quest for the White House. But he changed his mind, and this week warned reporters it was too soon to write his political obituary.

There was confusion further down the campaign hierarchy as well. On Tuesday, Dean’s staff members said the candidate would announce his future plans on Thursday. Then they backed off from that statement.

Dean’s changing strategy may have cost him some support among Wisconsin voters. John Nichols, a columnist for the Capital Times in Madison, says Dean put a lot of effort into the state months ago. But then, Nichols says, the candidate seemed to lose interest in Wisconsin.

(Nichols) “It seems as if Dean forgot about Wisconsin for a long time until he got into real trouble. And then suddenly he said, Oh, well I’ll go to Wisconsin because it’s a maverick state and it will save me. The bottom line is that’s not how it works. He did a lot of things right at first but he failed to maintain the relationship effectively and in so doing, there was a lot of slippage of support. And when things got tough, a lot of people went elsewhere.”

(Dillon) The turnout in the state was heavy and outside a Madison polling place, Rick Gabriel said his support for Dean never wavered.

(Gabriel) “I think he was he most committed and energetic about changing the status quo of politics.”

(Dillon) But Jennifer Schultz cast her ballot for the winner.

(Jennifer Schultz) “I voted for John Kerry today. I liked Kerry, you know the whole Vietnam thing and he wants to bring the jobs back. In the Democrats, I would say he has a better chance against Bush.”

(Dillon) Howard Dean has called John Kerry a politician who’s taken too much money from lobbyists. The question for Dean now is how he’ll continue to work for change inside and outside the Democratic Party.

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

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