Underdog shortens the odds, Howard's way: by taking aim at Bush

Howard Dean stands precariously on the small stone bench behind the home of Steve Green and Andy La Brie on the outskirts of Concord, New Hampshire. Before him is a small crowd of their friends - mostly gay couples from the area - and beyond them a paddock for their unusual pets, three miniature horses.

As a backdrop for his short stump speech, devoted mostly to attacking America's "credit-card-president" - George Bush - the horses seem a bit unfortunate. Journalists, who almost outnumber supporters, are quick to latch on to their diminutive stature. They are, they joke, "Dean-sized".

The former governor of Vermont faces many hurdles in his quest to become the Democrat nominee for President next year. His height, 5ft 8in, is one. His liberal image, which moderates and conservatives flinch at, is another. His record includes signing a law in Vermont allowing gays and lesbians to enter a "civil union". It is not marriage but the closest thing to it for gays in America.

There is a reason there are so many reporters here six months before the first vote in the next election season. Until recently seen as an underdog, Mr Dean has suddenly emerged as a potential leader, well positioned to win the crucial first primary election in New Hampshire in January.

Of the nine Democrats vying for the nomination, the governor is hardly the most qualified. Running Vermont, a tiny rural state, only just qualifies as high office. His rivals include Senator John Kerry, Representative Dick Gephardt and Senator Joe Lieberman, all men with far greater experience of Washington as well as considerable name recognition. Yet, for now at least, the buzz is with Mr Dean.

It started two weeks ago when the candidates revealed how much money they had raised in the most recent quarter. The winner was Mr Dean. Several things may have combined to make this happen. First, there was his willingness directly to attack Mr Bush and his Democrat opponents while daring to voice liberal tenets of the party that most had thought out of fashion. He has also been alone among the nine Democrats consistently to criticise the war in Iraq. "It is not that I am a pacifist," he intones. "I didn't support the war because the facts weren't there to justify it."

And there is the internet.

Almost at the end of his speech, Mr Dean has one more thing to say before taking questions. He touts his website and asks everyone in the garden to direct six other people they know to look at it. That he does so surprises no one. Mr Dean, more than his rivals - more than any candidate in history - is making the internet his tool.

Above all, he is using it to hunt down those desperately needed dollars. Of the $7.5m (£4.5m) he raised for his campaign in the year's second quarter, more than half came from online donations. But www.deanforamerica.com has also been crucial in building grassroots enthusiasm.

Voters who have been drawn to Mr Dean on the internet are called Deansters. After conversing online, they gather in bars and coffee houses across the country to talk more about him and draw new converts.

But politics in America never gets more human than in New Hampshire. Scenes like the one in Concord replay themselves every four years as presidential aspirants criss-cross the state for months in search of that tiny advantage that will put them on top on primary day. Walk the length of Main Street and you will spy placards with the names of every Democratic contender taped to shop windows. Wait two minutes and a volunteer for one of them will approach you with leaflets, stickers and badges.

Mr Dean begins this day at a medical centre in Derry, near the border with Massachusetts, to promote his plan to give government coverage to the millions of Americans currently without medical insurance. It is almost meant to emphasise his background as a one-time doctor - not a "professional" politician. "The Doctor is In" is the slogan on the campaign posters festooning the surgery waiting room.

It is a rather flat occasion. The former governor has a reputation for being pugnacious on the stump almost to the point of ill temper. Yet observers of him say he has two personalities. The other is this one - the groomed and debonair charmer with the manner of, well, a doctor. The event perks up a little when he holds an impromptu press conference outside afterwards to exploit the President's difficulties over his now discredited claim, made in the State of the Union Address, that Iraq bought uranium from Niger.

Already, however, most of the ingredients that are bringing the candidate attention come into view. We witness his scorn for George Bush and for his policy of tax cuts. "People in this country would prefer to pay the same taxes they paid when Bill Clinton was President if only they could have the same economy as when Bill Clinton was President." It is a line he repeats to almost everyone he meets.

Pay attention, however, and you will see there is a moderate inside Mr Dean also. Someone prods him on his reluctance to support federal gun control. The matter, he replies, should be left mostly to individual states. He is a fiscal conservative too, playing up his success in balancing Vermont's budget. No one asks now, but it is also true that he is a conditional supporter of capital punishment.

For now, however, Mr Dean is setting himself apart by emphasising the liberal and progressive traditions of his party, those parts Mr Clinton, another former governor, chose to ditch as he dragged Democrats to the centre. "The only way to beat the Republicans," he declares to his garden audience, "is to stand up for who we are, to be proud of who we are, to respect our party's base, who have been voting for us for a very long time."

That gets attention but carries heavy risk. Most commentators agree that, to win, carrying the traditional left will not be enough. He must appeal to conservative Democrats also. Most of those who talk to him in Concord seem to believe that Mr Dean can carry that off. "I think he can, if he can get enough people with him. I really do believe he is electable," insists Delmar Yanke, 64, a retired professor who is now in his fourth year as a flight attendant for American Airlines. "As long as we can start defining what liberal means and not leave it to the conservative talk show hosts to do it."

The candidate is already running late for another event across town. But he can't leave without talking to this gathering about gays in America. He recalls, to warm applause, that he chose to sign the civil union bill into law six months before facing re-election as Governor. "So you know I am not going to worry about what the polls are saying when I am running this country," he suggests.

He winds up with an anecdote. (He has many.) It concerns an 80-year-old man who approached him the street in Washington recently to thank him for the civil union law. He was a veteran from the Normandy landings. It wasn't because he had a gay son or grandson. He himself was gay.

"He was prepared to give his life defending this country and the Western world," Mr Dean said. "That sort of guy should have exactly the same rights I have. And if you can't understand that, you should go vote for George Bush."

The road to Washington

By Rupert Cornwell

Howard Dean's road to the potential Democratic nomination consists of a six-month trek until the New Year, followed by a six-week sprint through the primaries.

The last of the nine candidates standing will be proclaimed as George Bush's formal opponent at the end of July.

It breaks down in this way:

Up to mid-January 2004: Speeches, organisation-building and fund-raising - in which Mr Dean has done surprisingly well.

13 January 2004: Washington DC is trying to hold a Democratic primary. If it happens, Mr Dean would be well placed to appeal to a liberal, middle-class electorate.

19 January: The traditional primary season kicks off with the Iowa caucuses, where a strong finish would establish Mr Dean as a vote winner.

27 January: The New Hampshire primary, a must-win showdown between the rival New Englanders, Mr Dean of Vermont and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. The loser is probably doomed.

3 February: Primaries in South Carolina, Michigan, Arizona and Oklahoma. A strong showing in these would prove Mr Dean has national appeal.

2 March: The decisive day with primaries in 12 states, including the two giants of California and New York,as well as Ohio and Massachusetts. By that night the successful nominee, almost certainly, will be known.

26 July: The opening of the Democratic Convention in Boston, where members will nominate the party's Vice-Presidential and Presidential candidates.

The heights and power

By Hugh MacLeod

At 5ft 8in, what chance does the Democrat candidate Howard Dean have of mounting a challenge to his Republican rival, whose 5ft 11in frame currently dominates the global political spectrum?

¿ 21 of the last 25 US presidential elections have been won by the taller candidate, with only four presidents measuring less than 5ft 6in.

¿ In 1809, James Madison (pictured), 5ft 4in, can't have fancied his chances height wise. Two of his predecessors, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, had ruled the fledgling nation from the height of 6ft 2in. However, the diminutive Madison saw off Charles Pinckney to become America's 4th and shortest president. Dismissed by Washington Irving as "a withered little apple-john", Madison overcame this early political heightism to win a second term in 1812.

¿ From then on, however, the US was run from a lofty height. From James Monroe to Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan to Abraham Lincoln, who at 6ft 4in was the tallest, holders of the Oval Office were rarely shorter than 6ft.

¿ Even Richard Nixon, when he straightened up, could manage 5ft 11½in.

¿ In1988, the democrat candidate, Michael Dukakis, 5ft 8in, already dwarfed by his 6ft 2in running mate Lloyd Bentsen, was defeated by the 6ft 2in George Bush Snr.

¿ In 1992, Ross Perot, 5ft 5in, failed to win any electoral college votes against Mr Bush, who eventually lost to the 6ft 2½in Bill Clinton.

¿ In 2000, however, George Bush Jnr, a mere 5ft 11in, finally pulled off a coup for the shorter contender, beating the 6ft Al Gore.

¿ But the bravest challenge yet to the order of heightism must go to Robert Reich, who at just 4ft 10½in ran for Governor of Massachusetts in 2002. He was Secretary of Labour under Mr Clinton, but they fell out over the President's remark that Mr Reich could live in a Lego model of the White House.

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