On the evening of Wednesday, April 2, a group of Seattleites supporting the presidential candidacy of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean met at Piecora's Pizza on Capitol Hill. The monthly meeting was organized at Meetup.com, a new web service used by candidates to bring together and organize grassroots supporters. Nearly 200 people showed up that night, without any outreach from the Dean campaign. As many as could fit crammed into the restaurant's backroom, with more spilling out of the entryway; all were there to support a relatively obscure second-tier candidate in an election still 19 months in the future.

The four campaign staffers on hand--then the entirety of Dean's Washington State operation--were overwhelmed. The attendees were youngish and tech-savvy, and wanted to find out what they could do to help get Dean elected. Almost everyone at Piecora's was also staunchly liberal--there were even a few "Greens for Dean."

Since then, grassroots support for Howard Dean has only grown in Washington State. Former Governor Booth Gardner has signed on as honorary chair of the campaign here. At the nine May meetups held around the state last week, hundreds of new people came out to show their support and get involved in the Dean campaign. In Seattle, and in many other cities around the country, Howard Dean has the sort of momentum most candidates can only dream about. And this is before he has even made a public appearance in Washington--though on the day this story comes out, Wednesday, May 14, he will speak at Town Hall, where organizers expect a full house of 1,100 people.

But why?

Howard Dean does not believe invading Iraq was necessary, but he is not a peace candidate in the Dennis Kucinich mold. As he says repeatedly, he is not afraid of using the military to protect American interests around the globe. He is not in favor of cutting the military budget. He is a liberal on most social issues, but even with respect to his most prominent liberal achievement--signing Vermont's civil unions law--he has expressed personal discomfort with the idea of gay marriage. He's tightfisted with money--even on expanding health care coverage, a signature issue (Dean is a medical doctor), he is an incrementalist who does not believe universal coverage can be attained in one swoop--and he is to the right of his party on gun control.

But as I discovered last week in two days with Dean and his campaign as it swung through New Hampshire, none of that really matters, because Dean's appeal to the liberal wing of his party transcends the issues. It is an emotional connection more than an intellectual one. After the embarrassments of 2000 and 2002, Democrats are angry. They are angry at the Bush administration for its pandering to the far right, and they are angry at their own party for its impotence. And Howard Dean is angry about the same things, and he is not afraid to say so. Howard Dean, in short, is not subtle about making the case for the Democratic agenda. He convinces liberals to believe in themselves, and to believe that by backing him they will back a winner. And he just may be right.

* * *

On a gray, damp New England Tuesday morning in early May, Howard Dean climbs the small stage in the auditorium of a retirement community outside of Hanover, New Hampshire--home to Dartmouth College and the most liberal enclave in this conservative state--to make his pitch to 250 seniors. This place, Kendall at Hanover, is known to the Democratic political cognoscenti as a gold mine of potential primary votes. About 90 percent of the complex's 400 residents are likely to cast ballots, and North Carolina Senator John Edwards, also in the race, has already put in an appearance here. Before the big media buys, before the heavy hitters of the national press have much of a chance to weed and seed, before most of the country even figures out that there's a race going on, it is in rooms like this one that an insurgent outsider's campaign either takes root and blossoms or withers and dies.

Dean spends about 15 minutes pounding home his campaign themes. His voice is booming and deep, and there is an edge of impatience to it, as if he cannot understand why anyone would fail to immediately concede that everything he says is self-evidently true. His style is forceful, blunt, even impolitic. On reforming our broken health care system: "Even the dreaded French have health insurance for everybody." On fixing our broken economy: "We better elect a Democrat because the Republicans can't handle money." On changing our broken foreign policy: "I'm tired of a foreign policy that says, basically, 'Get out of my way or I'll see you in the parking lot after school.'" At every opportunity, he lashes out at George Bush: "He is the most conservative president in our lifetime." "This president has the worst environmental policy I've ever heard of." "He's been the most divisive president since Nixon." He also targets his own party's wishy-washy leadership: "Democrats are almost as angry at the Democratic Party as they are at the Republicans, because they haven't stood up to this president."

In this room, among these dyed-in-the-wool liberals, Dean scores. He has artfully tapped their still simmering resentment over the 2000 election debacle, and their growing dismay over the current administration's swagger. He makes the other measured, bland big-name Democratic pols seem like time-serving hacks; he is unafraid to say out loud exactly what Democrats believe in their hearts. He has sensed their desire to draw a line in the sand and hit back hard. After the short speech and a short question-and-answer session, these old people swarm around to cheer him on. "He's got my vote," one tells me. "He's the next president," another says. One of the old ladies shakes Dean's hand and issues a command. "You beat that goddamn Bush," she says.

And that is the geriatric version of the Dean phenomenon. The people who come out to see him are tired of feeling cowed, of feeling like freaks and losers in their own country. They want a bold and fearless leader to carry the flag for them, and Howard Dean is a natural in that role. Everywhere he speaks, his bristling, cut-the-bullshit advocacy of core Democratic principles draws an intense response from his audiences. We can win if we just stop acting like wimps, he tells them--or, as he puts it, "We can't beat George Bush with Bush lite."

* * *

There is no question that Howard Dean is the big surprise and best story of the early race, and not just in New Hampshire, where he is neck and neck with the media-anointed front-runner, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry (New Hampshire holds the first primary, on January 27). Though Dean remains in fourth place, his poll numbers have tripled in Iowa in the last three months. "There's no question he's a credible candidate," says Gordon Fisher, the Iowa Democratic Party chair. Even in more socially conservative South Carolina, set to vote February 3 (the Washington caucuses are February 7), party chair Dick Harpootlian says Dean can win votes in the South. ""He's the total package," Harpootlian says.

Even more significantly, activist Democrats across the country are falling over themselves to volunteer for Dean; already 23,000 around the country have signed up at Meetup.com. Kerry, as Dean is fond of saying, has registered barely more than 1000, and the other candidates even fewer. In Seattle the Dean meetups are an underground sensation, with 837 supporters so far--third most in the country, behind only New York City and Washington, D.C. Tapping these "webroots" has been a huge windfall for Howard Dean. It provides him with a free army of volunteers eager to do the get-the-message-out gruntwork. And, just as importantly, it provides money. In the first three months of this year, Dean raised $730,000 over the web via thousands of small donations, and he hopes to raise close to $1 million more this way by June.

The other Democratic contenders, particularly Kerry, have taken notice, as their mounting attacks on Dean indicate. Kerry slammed Dean in the May 3 presidential debate in South Carolina, claiming--falsely, it turns out--that the percentage of Vermont adults with health insurance dropped during Dean's governorship. Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut dismissed Dean's claim that Saddam Hussein did not represent a direct threat to the United States, and Senator Bob Graham of Florida, playing off Dean's tag line (borrowed from the late Paul Wellstone), "I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," stated, "I represent the electable wing of the Democratic Party."

On the stump, Dean contends that such attacks on him are a sign of his growing strength. "I was pleased with the attention I got from Senator Kerry," Dean tells the residents of a retirement home a few days after the debate.

His opponents propose that Dean's campaign has seen its high-water mark--and they may have a point. Things have not gone well for Dean over the couple of weeks prior to the New Hampshire swing I witnessed. Before then, Dean set himself apart from the other mainstream Democratic candidates, who all voted to give President Bush authority to use military action against Iraq, with his forceful opposition to the war. "The wrong war at the wrong time," he continues to call it in his stump speech, arguing that it is a distraction from the real war against al Qaeda.

But with the quick and relatively painless conclusion to the fighting, Dean's position now seems out of step with the public mood. Asked about the fall of Saddam Hussein in mid-April, Dean did not help himself with his tepid endorsement. "I suppose that's a good thing," he said.

Still, the more astute political pundits believe that Dean is likely to remain a serious player in the fractured Democratic race. Last week, for instance, Newsweek's Howard Fineman dubbed Dean "the Democrat to watch." And at the beginning of this month, Democratic political pundit Mark Shields told a Vermont television station that "those who are covering the campaign have to stand in awe, if not shock, that here he is being attacked by the alleged front-runner. That itself is a statement on how far and fast Howard Dean has come."

* * *

Here's the bio on Howard Dean: He is 54 years old. He is a New York blueblood, the product of a long line of prominent Republican Wall Street big shots. He went to the right prep schools, and then, inevitably, to Yale (class of '71). He avoided the Vietnam draft through a medical deferment--he has a bad back, though it has been pointed out that this did not stop him from spending long days on the ski slopes during that period. He was also a bit of a weekend warrior in his younger days, and enjoyed the simple pleasures in life, like occasionally getting crocked (he has long since given up drinking). He has also admitted to having smoked marijuana, though he refuses to discuss his youthful indiscretions in detail.

After college he worked on Wall Street, found he hated it, and went on to medical school (graduating in 1978). That's where he met his wife, Judith Steinberg; the two moved to Burlington, Vermont, and set up a joint medical practice. They lived, and continue to live, modestly; though he's worth about $4 million, Dean drives a rusted '89 Chevy Blazer, and only recently upgraded his suits for the presidential run, according to a recent profile in New York magazine. They have two kids, a daughter and a son. In keeping with his wife's faith, both have been raised Jewish (Dean is a Congregationalist).

Howard Dean is very much a family man, according to those who know him. Kathy Hoyt, his former chief of staff, tells me that he drove his kids to school every day during his years as governor, and required that his schedule be left open so he could attend his son's hockey games. John Tracy, a Democratic leader in Vermont's state house, was coach of Dean's son's soccer team, and says Dean would come to all the games. "He's a regular Joe," says Tracy, who was a helicopter machine gunner in Vietnam. Peter Clavelle, the Progressive mayor of Burlington (the Progressives are an established third party in lefty Vermont), says that since their kids played on some of the same sports teams, he saw Dean as much on the sidelines of soccer games as he did in political settings. "He's a very decent person," Clavelle says. Peter Freyne, a former cabbie and a longtime political columnist for Seven Days, the Burlington alt-weekly, says Dean has never acted like a rich, snotty New Yorker: "He really is a regular guy."

Even so, Howard Dean is a very ambitious regular guy, a man who has been laying the groundwork for this presidential bid for years. Scudder Parker, the soft-spoken Vermont Democratic Party chair, says Dean has long been up-front about his ambitions, and "that has a kind of integrity to it." Dean was first elected to the state house in 1982, and won Vermont's lieutenant governorship--a low-profile ribbon-cutting gig--in 1986. Parker recalls lunching with Dean shortly after he was elected lieutenant governor. "I said I had a hard time with raw political ambition--I didn't feel I had it in me," Parker remembers. "Howard looked at me and said, 'Huh--that's too bad, because I'm very ambitious.' Right there I saw he knows where he's going; he knows what he wants to do."

Dean got to the top in Vermont in part through the vagaries of circumstance. In 1991, Republican Governor Richard Snelling died of a heart attack, and Dean suddenly found himself governor of Vermont. He went on to win reelection to five more two-year terms, serving in the post until he retired in January.

Dean had some noteworthy achievements over those 11 years. He expanded children's health care coverage through an existing Medicaid program to the point that now virtually all of the state's children are insured. When he came into office, Vermont was in terrible shape, with a $65 million deficit. Dean stuck with the tough austerity plan instituted by Snelling, in the face of tremendous pressure to open the spigot from the left wing of his own party. He continued to balance budgets throughout his tenure, holding the line on social spending. He cut the state income tax twice, reduced Vermont's debt, and built up a rainy-day fund--and, again, much of this was done in the face of opposition from his own party and with the support of moderate Republicans. He left office with an indelible record as a fiscal conservative, and left Vermont's fiscal house in the best shape of any of the New England states'. His conservative successor, Republican Jim Douglas, actually praised Dean's policies in an April speech.

This points to one of the most interesting things about Howard Dean. Though the Republican National Committee is already deriding him as an "ultra-liberal," and the press routinely characterizes him as the farthest left of the mainstream Democratic contenders, Dean is actually not a liberal--at least not when it comes to money and guns. Former Democratic Vermont Governor Madeleine Kunin tells me that "in Vermont Howard Dean has always been considered a moderate Democrat," and everyone else from the state whom I contact echoes that view. Dean's own website characterizes him as a "common-sense moderate." Dean is far more centrist than many of his presidential supporters may realize.

"He's not the lefty guy people think he is," Freyne says. "He taught the tax-and-spend liberals to be fiscal conservatives," a development Freyne considers "a miracle." Wayne Roberts, head of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, who served as an economic advisor to Dean and traveled with him on several trade missions, says the governor "had a good relationship with the business community. He was always ready to listen, and had many good ideas." Dean also gets an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association. He supports the assault weapons ban and the Brady bill, and believes the gun show loophole should be closed, but opposes any further federal gun restrictions.

In fact, many of Vermont's liberal Democrats and Progressives dislike Dean, whom they paint as practically a closet Republican (Clavelle is a notable exception, though he describes himself as part of the "pragmatic" wing of his party). In 2000, when Dean ran for his fifth term as governor of Vermont, Progressives ran a candidate against Dean--knowing full well that they might hand the Vermont governorship to a right-wing Republican. This was after Dean had signed Vermont's landmark civil unions bill--which grants same-sex couples access to the same rights and protections enjoyed by married couples--and he was facing a heated "Take Back Vermont" Republican challenge. The Progressive candidate wound up taking almost 10 percent of the vote, and Dean squeaked back into office.

Looking into Dean's record and his rocky relationship with the left in Vermont, one can't help but wonder if the Democratic activists at Piecora's in Seattle know exactly who they're signing up to support. Dean is a more complicated man than local lefties seem to realize.

But what attracts purists to a maverick moderate like Dean is not his record, but his willingness to throw a punch and forcefully stand up against the rightward drift of the national political Zeitgeist. Dean is pragmatic and tough--a gets-things-done sort of guy. He is "not a warm and fuzzy figure," University of Vermont political scientist John Burke says. Ralph Wright, the legendary former Democratic house speaker in Vermont--an old-school, two-fisted, Boston-Irish kind of politician--wrote in his memoir, "Winning starts with the idea that you're not going to lose. Governor Dean has never spent any significant amount of time mulling that possibility... if Howard Dean is anything, he's a warrior."

Pugnacious and a little prickly, Dean doesn't back down from a fight, and is willing to play political hardball if that's what it takes to get what he wants. And if there's anything Democrats want, it's to oust George W. Bush from the White House.

* * *

Three hours after the Kendall appearance, at the Top of the Hop, the second floor of a campus building overlooking the main Dartmouth quad, about 300 students gather to see Dean speak, along with a sizable contingent of media. As we wait for Dean to show his face, a handful of the print reporters stand around chatting. "I thought he needed 3,000 body bags to make that [antiwar stance] work," a reporter from a New England daily says, adding, perhaps unnecessarily, that Dean "almost took my head off when I told him that."

Then Dean steps up to the podium to rousing applause, and launches into a longer version of the stump speech he gave at Kendall, a speech I will hear three more times over the next 36 hours. Though he has fine-tuned his Iraq rhetoric slightly--now he is "delighted to see Saddam gone"--he does not shy away from his belief that the postwar occupation may yet go badly. "Every day we will be seen more as occupiers than liberators," he predicts, "and our troops will be the targets." And he says he had no qualms about signing Vermont's unique civil unions law--despite the fact that 60 percent of Vermonters opposed the bill. "I knew if I was willing to sell out the rights of a whole group of Americans to get reelected, then I'd wasted my time in politics."

This time, Dean adds elements to his speech clearly tailored to reach younger voters. "We need to stop giving monopolies to big radio station owners who kick the Dixie Chicks off the air because they don't agree with their political philosophy," he says, winning noisy applause. He blasts the president for describing the University of Michigan's admissions policy as a quota system: "'Quota' is a racially loaded word designed to divide people by race.... I'm tired of being divided by race, by income, by gender." More applause. And he talks about the Internet, citing the thousands who have organized online to support him. "It's people your age who provide the juice" for this campaign, he says.

It is also gays and lesbians--a substantial constituency in the Democratic base--who are providing juice for Dean's campaign. On the third anniversary of the civil unions bill's signing last month, Dean's gay supporters gathered at "house party" fundraisers for Dean in 50 cities around the country, including Seattle. But back in 1999, Dean was not eager to take up the issue. He was "never a champion of civil unions," Freyne says. "The issue was dropped on his doorstep." The Vermont Supreme Court decision ordering the legislature to deal with the issue "drained the color from his face," Freyne continues. Dean backed the civil unions bill rather than outright gay marriage, saying then that the idea of gay marriage "makes me uncomfortable, the same as anyone else." When he signed the bill, he did so in private, without a public ceremony. Still, given the strong public opposition to civil unions, that Dean signed the bill at all is a testament to his courage. I ask Dean during our interview if he thought he was signing away his political career when he signed the bill. He denies it, saying such thoughts never crossed his mind. That he has turned that signing into a positive in the campaign so far is also a testament to Dean's political skill. "Talk about making a silk purse from a sow's ear," Freyne says.

Later on that same Tuesday afternoon, I'm driving across New Hampshire toward Dover, a small town in the southeastern part of the state abutting the Maine border, when during the 3:00 p.m. newsbreak word comes that the latest New Hampshire poll has been released. It is good news for Howard Dean: Dean, who has seemed to be slipping far behind Kerry in recent weeks--a poll released the previous Saturday had Kerry leading Dean 28 to 21--is again tied for first with his Massachusetts rival. According to this tally, both command 23 percent of the state's Democratic support; Joe Lieberman is a distant third with 9 percent. I'm there when Dean reaches Dover. As he hops out of the red Ford Explorer in which he travels with close aides, he is smiling, and appears looser and more relaxed. I ask one of Dean's aides if they've heard the poll results. "Yeah, we heard about it in the car," she tells me. "Are you pleased?" I ask. She laughs. "First place is good," she says.

First place is good. Because two-thirds of New Hampshire's population live within the Boston media orbit, the conventional wisdom says New Hampshire is Kerry country. Kerry has to win in his own backyard or he will be dismissed by the press as a laughingstock. If Dean can beat Kerry here, it won't just be a huge boost for Dean; it may torpedo Kerry's candidacy. Even if Dean finishes a close second, it will be portrayed as a defeat for Kerry. On the other hand, if Dean doesn't finish within a couple of points of his rival, he will be written off as a colorful sideshow performer. There is really only room for one of them in this race; already it has become clear that there is no love lost between the two men, and the stakes are such that things will only get uglier as the race develops.

* * *

On Wednesday afternoon, I get my face time with Dean. He is kicking back in his shirtsleeves in the conference room of a law firm a block from the gold-domed state capitol building in Concord. He looks a little tired, and seems subdued. Before we start, Dean asks me about The Stranger. I have been warned that he is "not a hip, cool guy" (note to MTV: He does play the guitar), but when I tell him we are known for reaching younger readers, he perks up. In his campaign appearances, he likes to talk about the need to interest younger people in the political process. He believes, he says, that this is best accomplished by offering them a clear choice.

I ask him where he fits on the ideological spectrum. "I don't," he fires back. "I'm conservative about money. I really do believe in a balanced budget, but I'm appalled by the president's fiscal irresponsibility. And I'm liberal about social issues."

I mention the RNC's "ultra-liberal" tag. "Why would you believe anything the RNC says?" he retorts. "Anybody who labels me as an ultra-liberal is probably right-wing. Those are the people we need to get out of office. I'm only too happy to take them on."

I ask him if he's deliberately running to the left of where he stood as governor. He denies it: "I can't think of one thing that I've talked about on the campaign trail that we didn't do, or I didn't believe when I was governor." This may be true, but there is also no question that his stress so far in the campaign has been on his more liberal views: multilateralism, civil unions, expanding health care coverage. He doesn't, for instance, mention in his stump speeches his track record of staring down the Vermont left, which probably isn't an accident.

I ask him why he is so disliked by Vermont lefties. "The people I [really] don't get along with are the right-wing ideologues," he says. "Some of the Progressives can be ideologically motivated... I think people who are ideological are impatient with me because I don't really care about ideology very much. My ideology is that I believe in social and economic justice, and I actually want to help people instead of pushing some particular set of principles. And I got crossed by some because I wouldn't raise taxes."

I ask him about what he thinks of the way the current administration plays politics. "What they play is dirty politics.... There's a level of meanness. There is no compassion in this administration whatsoever. I think there's a level of deception that's pretty significant," Dean says. "That's why I'm running. I think the American people need to hear somebody tell the truth, and they can make their choice." And he takes the opportunity to nail the other Democratic candidates as well: "My tactics are different from everybody in the race. [My Democratic opponents] kind of do the traditional Washington things and trim on the margins. I don't think we can win that way."

I tell him that his former aides tell me that they lived in terror whenever he went before the press, because they had no idea what was going to come out of his mouth. Dean lights up as I say this, and it is immediately apparent that he loves this idea of himself as the guy who can't be controlled, or handled, or made to stick to the playbook. "That's true," he says, with just the slightest hint of a smile.

Howard Dean does have a playbook, but it's stylistic more than verbal: say it straight, don't dither, be clear, show no doubt or fear, act like only a lunatic would disagree with you, never apologize or back down in defending Democratic principles, paint your Democratic opponents as mealy-mouthed appeasers, blast Bush as a far-right whack job. I am tempted to label Howard Dean's approach as an inspired shtick, but that would be unfair to Howard Dean. It is a shtick, of course, though a fundamentally honest one. The true genius of Howard Dean, is that somewhere down the line he's figured out that if you strip away all the artifice from your political persona and lose the carefully calibrated public posturing that every politician learns to do early, if you just say what you say in private in public--in the same way you say it in private--people will respond. In that sense, Howard Dean's greatest political masterstroke was deciding to just be Howard Dean.

Dean has been described as the "anti-Bush," but he is really the anti-Clinton. There is no smarmy Clintonian I-feel-your-pain empathizing in Howard Dean, no wet-eyed, staring-into-the-distance emotionalism as he stands at the podium. And there is no blurring of principles in a grab for the muddled, muddy center. Rather, you get a tough-talking, this-is-how-I-see-it, take-it-or-leave-it style from him. That this plays well with the Democratic base is clear. Whether it will sell to the middle-class suburban swing voters the Democrats must win over to beat Bush is questionable, even doubtful. But Dean has a nomination to capture before he can confront that question head-on--and, so far anyway, he is doing what no one would have guessed was possible even a few months ago: He is convincing the rank and file that he's the guy who can win.

* * *

The last event I attend with Dean is a meetup held at a brewpub in Nashua, New Hampshire, a small, gritty city about 45 minutes north of Boston. Earlier in the day, Dean's aides informed me that about 60 people had signed up to attend, but about three times that number turn up to see the candidate. Several in the crowd tell me they've driven up from Massachusetts, John Kerry's home state, to see Dean. As he enters the room, speakers by the side of the podium blast a heavy techno dance beat overlaid with samples from Dean's already legendary February speech to the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C., where he had party apparatchiks out of their seats, whistling and cheering as he gave an uncompromising defense of party principles. "He was on fire that day," says Parker, the Vermont party chair. The crowd loves the razzle-dazzle, and Dean is on fire here, too, delivering the most rousing version of his speech I've heard yet. He clearly feeds off the crowd; they rev him up as much as he revs them. After the speech one of Dean's younger aides tells me they're thrilled at the turnout--they've signed up another 130 people for Dean's liberal legions, he says.

So, why is Howard Dean generating so much excitement among the party faithful in Seattle? And--perhaps most importantly--can this straight-talking guy actually win? I have figured out the answer to the first question, I think; as for the second, after six events and hundreds of miles, after the fiery oratory and the boisterous and enthusiastic crowds, and after a sit-down with the candidate, I am convinced that Howard Dean is for real, and has a real shot at the Democratic presidential nomination. Whether he will lead the party to recapture the White House if he gets that nomination or instead lead it over the cliff into a McGovern-style drubbing at the polls is an open question. Two things I am sure of, though. First, Howard Dean is a great politician. He is so good a politician, in fact, that he makes it easy to forget he is a politician at all. And second, if Howard Dean does go down, I guarantee you he will go down swinging. n

To read the full transcript of Sandeep Kaushik's interview with Howard Dean, go to www.thestranger.com.