Voters warm to Dean, the cold Democrat

Activists are flocking to hear the anti-war presidential hopeful
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The Independent US

The upstairs events room at the Muddy Waters restaurant-cum-club is packed with people, young, old and not so old, hollering and yelling. The attraction is not a raucous family wedding, or a gig by a touring country and western band. In this age of political disenchantment they have come to listen to a politician. And Howard Dean does not disappoint.

In the past couple of months the former governor of the obscure and quirky state of Vermont, once regarded as a nuisance by his rivals for the Democratic nomination in next year's presidential election, has become a force that threatens to redraw his party's politics. Any doubters should have been among the 350 souls who came to hear him at the Muddy Waters.

Iowa is crucial to Mr Dean's chances, because its precinct caucuses in January are the first test of the relative strengths of the candidates. "This is an extraordinary turnout, six months before the actual vote, here in Iowa," says David Loebsack, a teacher. And close by, a backer of another candidate, the North Carolina Senator John Edwards, grudgingly agrees. At the Democratic grassroots, something is stirring.

It is easy to put down it to Iraq. Mr Dean was an opponent of the war from before the outset, and as the post-war occupation has become steadily messier, so his refrain of "I told you so" resonates. But he has gone further, capturing the frustration of party activists at the feebleness of the Democrats in Washington, who are meant to oppose the Republicans but have lain down in front of the Bush juggernaut.

Howard Dean is not a warm politician. Candidates are supposed to smile all the time. He does not. His style is pugnacious, intense, even bitter. His eyes burn as he lambasts not just President Bush, but also the Democrats - several of them his rivals for the nomination - for their supineness. But it is the message that the activists want to hear.

"They never made the case to go to war, based on evidence," Mr Dean told an earlier group of Iowans who had lost their jobs in the recent recession, "and you have to look at those Democrats who voted for war [last October], five months before the war began. You have to ask yourself, how would they perform if they were President?"

This is powerful stuff, making few friends among his peers, and has many wondering whether Mr Dean is not destined to go the way of George McGovern, who rode resentment at the Vietnam war to the Democratic nomination in 1972, but whose supposed liberalism gave Richard Nixon a landslide. Riding a similar wave of discontent, might not Mr Dean meet a similar fate at the hands of what Nixon used to call America's "silent majority"?

But Mr Dean is more than a populist. Contrary to impressions, he is not a stereotype liberal, though he does advocate universal health insurance and more generous treatment for the unemployed. Nor does he believe that untrammelled free trade is the cure for every economic ill. But he favours the death penalty, and is more hawkish than any Democrat is meant to be on fiscal matters.

The only promise Mr Bush has kept, he thunders, has been to go to war with Iraq. His tax cuts are a sham that have produced "a credit-card presidency" and "the greatest inheritance tax in history for our children", who will be saddled with paying the record deficits of the present. And the Democrats in Washington: "They just offered a tax cut package of $350bn to counter Bush's one of $670bn. So the question became how big should the tax cut be, not whether there should be tax cuts at all, that just give money to people who don't need it and won't spend it."

The Muddy Waters crowd love it. More important, Mr Dean is turning his popularity into money. In the second quarter he raised $7.5m, more than any of his rivals and enough to finance his campaign well into the heart of the primary season. His success reflects a brilliant internet fund-raising operation, securing small donations, typically $60 to $75, from some 90,000 contributors. The internet has also helped him put together a national network of 60,000 volunteers. But the net is only a tool, the candidate insists. "If you have something to say, they will come."

Intriguingly, Mr Dean claims to have attracted much interest from followers of John McCain, the Republican maverick who gave Mr Bush such trouble in 2000, and of Ross Perot, whose third-party candidacy helped to topple George Bush senior in 1992. If so, then the excitement will last well into 2004.

Big questions remain, however. Has he peaked too early - and can he handle the media scrutiny that success will bring? More prosaically, can he win in Iowa? Doris Pieck, a former Iowa state representative, ponders the question. Iowa, in the frost and snow of winter, is far different from the Iowa of long summer days, the backdrop for the movie Field of Dreams - which the state is for Howard Dean right now.

"He may not win here," she answers, "but sure as hell he has a chance."