The earliest arrivals stand for two hours or more in the gray Saturday-afternoon cold to ensure choice seating. By the time the doors of Seattle's Town Hall open at 2:30 p.m. for what is supposed to be a wonkish, policy-laden health care forum with Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, the line stretches one-and-a-half times around the block--despite the fact that the event was announced barely 36 hours earlier. Not all of them will be lucky enough to get in. After the hall, which normally seats 1,200, is packed with a standing-room-only crowd, more than 100 late arrivals will be forced to wait in the atrium, where they will have to settle for a brief appearance by the doctor-politician before he enters the main hall.

Inside the auditorium, Congressman Jim McDermott, white-haired, fire-breathing icon of Seattle liberalism, plays the audience like a finely tuned guitar. "The first thing [Dean] did was stand up to this president on this awful war," McDermott roars, and the crowd responds with a sustained, almost deafening roar of its own. McDermott confesses that like Dean, he too has painful personal knowledge of "what happens to you when you stand up and say [that] the president doesn't know what he's doing," and the crowd consoles him with cheers. He lauds Dean for fashioning "a movement to take this party back to the principles for which it stood and to do it without using the big money." That movement is long overdue, the whistles of the crowd imply. That is why the "political bosses" dislike Dean, McDermott explains. The crowd understands, warbling its full-throated dislike for cynical string-pullers bent on perverting the promise of American democracy.

But McDermott is only the warm-up act. Soon enough, the headliner appears: Dean, looking almost "presidential"--at least at first--in a sober gray suit and maroon tie, walks onto the stage. He knows he is among friends here, especially since members of the national press corps who had been traveling with Dean, those zealous defenders of upper-middlebrow notions of political propriety, are stranded in Tucson thanks to airplane trouble. And besides, after all that has happened to Dean in the last two weeks, maybe he wouldn't care if they were here. He tried toning it down in New Hampshire, and it didn't work. This may be the band's last waltz, and Dean clearly feels free to let loose some political heavy metal.

He slams the war. He slams the special interests. He slams his detested rival for the nomination, John Kerry, the junior senator from Massachusetts, for having taken more money from lobbyists over the last 15 years than any other senator. And most of all, he slams George Bush. "This president never paid a bill in his life," he says. "Borrow and spend, borrow and spend," he says. "You can't trust the Republicans with your money," he says. This is music to Seattle's ears; the crowd is putty in his hands. It boos lustily at every mention of the bad guys, and yells hearty approval of every fiery denunciation. Dean's face takes on a pinkish hue as he warms to the moment. His finger begins wagging like a conductor's baton.

"There was no middle-class tax cut," he thunders. "It was the largest middle-class tax increase in the history of the United States." By now the crowd is clapping rhythmically and stomping its feet. "Human beings are not meant to be cogs in an enormous corporate governing machine," he rasps. "We need to stand up and change the Democratic Party," he shouts, and the cheering peaks, a sonic shockwave of a roar that continues unabated for perhaps half a minute. Then he turns to health care, reeling off the list of industrialized nations with universal coverage in rapid-fire sequence. It's an old bit from his stump speech, and this crowd knows it well; before he can reach the shouted punch line--"even the Costa Ricans have health insurance for everybody"--they are already on their feet, applauding wildly. And then, after taking a few questions on health care, which he answers with wonkish specificity, and a few more unrestrained denunciations of Bush mendacity, it's over. He ends on his now-familiar message of grassroots empowerment: "The power to change this country is in your hands on Saturday." The crowd exits, sated and elated.

Watching the performance, while Dean is on stage basking in the adulation of the crowd, it is easy to believe it's still 2003, that his campaign is still enjoying its meteoric rise, that this visit is the exclamation point to Dean's now legendary August 24 Sleepless Summer Tour rally, when about 10,000 Seattle supporters packed Westlake Center Plaza to cheer on the newly crowned Democratic frontrunner. But it is January 31, 2004, now, and those days of summer are a distant memory. Dean's Icarus-like fall has been breathtakingly rapid. He was still king only a month ago, but now it is Kerry's campaign that's on a meteoric and seemingly inexorable rise to the nomination.

In a sign of how far his once high-flying bid has fallen, Dean is no longer even assured of winning the Washington State caucuses next Saturday, despite his fervent antiwar, anti-Bush message, and the fact that he has repeatedly proven his ability to draw large and enthusiastic crowds in unrepentantly liberal Seattle.

Such are the wages of losing, and Dean has lost big, in both Iowa and New Hampshire, despite having poured most of the record $41 million he raised last year into his campaigns in those two states. He gambled it all on a quick knockout, and failed. Since then, campaign manager Joe Trippi, the architect of Dean's web-based grassroots strategy, has quit rather than be demoted, and, in a final indignity, campaign staffers were asked to temporarily forgo their paychecks. Of the seven states that vote February 3, four days before the Washington State caucuses, Dean realistically has an outside chance of winning only one: New Mexico. Even that may be wishful thinking.

Meanwhile Kerry, with tremendous momentum at his back, appears to be headed for wins in five, or perhaps more, of those states. Washington State's cautious Democratic establishment politicians, once cowed and silent in the face of the angry grassroots rebellion in their midst, are now breathing a sigh of relief that the natural order of power is restored. Too timid to make their establishment endorsements when Dean was surging, our local pols are now rushing to board the perceived winner's bus--in recent days, Governor Gary Locke, Representatives Jay Inslee, Rick Larsen, and Norm Dicks, and Senator Maria Cantwell have all endorsed Kerry.

Dean's campaign is not yet over. There is still a sliver of hope. He is not--at least not yet--Joe Lieberman or Dennis Kucinich, the bad jokes of this election season, who plow onwards for bizarre reasons explicable only to themselves. Dean will not admit it, but he must win Washington State on Saturday for his candidacy to survive. From here, he is girding himself to run a guerrilla campaign over the next several weeks, leading to an apocalyptic showdown with Kerry in Wisconsin on February 17; a win there, conceivably, could give Dean a much-needed boost heading into the California and New York primaries on March 2. But without a big win before then, it's hard to see how Dean can avoid being blown out of the water in Wisconsin. And his best hope of that first victory is here, he says in a post-rally conversation.

In the same interview, Dean also claims that "there's no such thing as a must-win," but the devastating consequences of losing here cannot be overstated. His campaign knows the stakes: He has visited twice in the last week--Seattle last Saturday and Spokane and Tacoma on Tuesday. Kerry too spent Tuesday here, rather than in any of the seven states that voted that day. It is noteworthy that Kerry's February 3 victory party was held in a downtown Seattle hotel. On the one hand, this was a bold show of the Kerry campaign's confidence. And it was an implicit acknowledgement of how important Washington State is to Dean's flagging hopes. The Kerry campaigners smell the possibility of stealing a win on what was once considered ground zero of the mighty Dean Nation. If they succeed, it will be a crushing psychological blow to Dean and his campaign.


Dean's Town Hall appearance proves once again that the former Vermont governor will always have Seattle: Here, at least, the love remains strong and true. Before the event, as I talk to the supporters streaming into the building, some spontaneously begin chanting, "How-ard Dean, How-ard Dean."

Hilke Faber, a registered nurse, is one of those lining up in the cold. She is an ardent Dean supporter. She has attended the house parties, donned the Dean buttons, been caught up in the message of liberal empowerment. Just this morning, she says, she has been canvassing her Beacon Hill neighborhood for Dean. Four of her neighbors gave her permission to post lawn signs supporting the candidate. "People are still strong," she assures me. But there is a hint of uncertainty as well as she sums up her morning's labors. "People who are pro-Dean are still pro-Dean," she says. "People who are undecided are still undecided."

Lynn Cohec is one of the undecided, a 42-year-old Seattleite who carries her small child in her arms as she waits in line. She has not yet decided between Dean and Kerry. She has not yet determined to her satisfaction "which of the two is more electable." Her priority is to get President Bush out of office, and she will commit herself to whichever Democrat has the best chance. In Iowa and New Hampshire, Anybody But Bush Democrats, obsessed with electability, abandoned Dean in droves for Kerry. That same dynamic may hold true for Dems throughout the rest of Washington State, but Cohec is a Seattleite, and may decide differently. She says she is not troubled by the temperament questions that have so damaged Dean's candidacy, particularly in the wake of Dean's "I Have a Scream" concession speech after losing the Iowa caucuses on January 19. The whole incident was vastly "overblown," she believes.

For others, there are no doubts at all. Inside the atrium I meet Dina Lydia Johnson. She is a 51-year-old belly dancer. Her blue business card, which she hands me, describes her as "Dina the Costume Goddess." She has organized two "Belly Dancers for Dean" house parties, raising more than $4,000 for the campaign. Why? Dean, she says, is the sort of statesman who comes along once in a generation. "I would walk over hot coals naked for this man if it would make him president," she says. We will discover on Saturday whether there are enough Dinas and Hilkes to give Dean the victory he so desperately needs if he is to have any hope of resuscitating his faltering campaign.

After Dean's speech, I am ushered backstage, along with two other local reporters, to interview him. As we approach the cramped interview room, Dean is standing in the doorway talking to McDermott, who praises him for his talent for firing up crowds. "It's easy for you," McDermott says. "These guys are hardcore," Dean replies, smiling, referring to his Seattle supporters.

As the interview begins, Dean comes across as remarkably relaxed in light of--or perhaps because of--his precarious political position. Leaning back in his chair, legs crossed, he says being the underdog is a better fit for his pugnacious personality. There can be liberation in losing. "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," Trippi reportedly said to Dean just before Dean walked on stage in the West Des Moines ballroom to deliver his post-Iowa speech, and he has apparently taken Trippi's message to heart. With much of the pressure off, he seems to be genuinely enjoying himself, probably for the first time in months. "It's a hell of a lot more fun than being the pincushion for every media organization in the country and all the other opponents in the Democratic Party and the [anti-Dean, centrist] DLC [Democratic Leadership Council]," Dean says.

Asked why his campaign went down in flames in Iowa and New Hampshire, he points to the bull's-eye he wore on his back for months as the frontrunner. "We got absolutely pummeled by everyone," he says. "Others will now have the delightful experience of being the frontrunner. In some ways it's easier to run from behind." He admits, though, that he has probably personally made "dozens and dozens" of mistakes that have played into his defeats, but Dean, a fighter to the last, is not one to waste time on melancholic self-reflection. As he puts it, "It's pretty hard to be reflective when you're in the middle of a series of primaries every single week."

And he remains unapologetic about much of what he has been criticized for in the media. He does not see anything wrong with the speech in Iowa, for example. He says, "I give myself an A for the speech in Iowa. I was smiling, I was pumped up, I was having a great time," though he does concede that it "wasn't very presidential." Similarly, he says many of his so-called gaffes were nothing of the sort. "Supposedly I made a gaffe a day. Well, if you look at the gaffes, they were things like saying, 'We're not any safer since Saddam Hussein was caught,' which is perfectly true."

Trippi's departure, Dean admits, was unfortunate, and he hopes Trippi eventually decides to return in some capacity--if there is something to come back to. "I do not blame him for one thing that went wrong in the campaign," Dean says. "I want to know everything, and I want everything explained to me, and I sign off on all the final decisions. I have not one piece of ill will about spending too much money. I okayed every major strategic decision and you can put the blame at my feet for anything going wrong."

During the 30-minute conversation, Dean is most animated when talking about John Kerry. According to published reports, many Dean staffers believe that the Kerry campaign engaged in dirty tricks in Iowa and New Hampshire, such as disturbing people late at night with phone calls purporting to be from the Dean campaign. There was never any love between the two men to begin with, and now Dean is playing hardball right back. Maybe he is motivated by a desire for revenge, or maybe he simply believes he has to knock down Kerry if he is to have any hope of regaining his momentum, or perhaps both.

Either way, Dean's indictment of the new frontrunner is harsh and uncompromising. He cites a Washington Post article that he says left him "sputtering, I was so mad." The article states that Kerry has taken large amounts in donations from lobbyists over the last 15 years. In light of the article, Dean all but accuses Kerry of being a hypocrite for railing on the campaign trail against special interests. In response, Kerry has said he never did anything for those lobbyists in exchange for their donations, and his campaign has called Dean's attack a sign of desperation.

But Dean is not giving an inch. "It seems to me there's a little of George Bush in John Kerry," he contends. "George Bush says the most blatant things that are just plain false. No Child Left Behind leaves every child behind--something that Senator Kerry also voted for. How many rationales has George Bush given us for the Iraq war? How many rationales has John Kerry given us for the Iraq war (which he also supported)? So I'm beginning to see a pattern. Maybe they shared a little more than just brotherhood at Skull and Bones, I don't know."

Though he is not by nature a reflective man, Dean does make a few broader statements. He says he is proud of having reshaped the debate in the Democratic race, which he says "is one of the things I intended to do" in getting into the race. He has reason to be proud. As many commentators have pointed out in recent weeks, the mainstream candidates are all Howard Dean now, blasting Bush-style neo-con arrogance and corporatist conservatism while adopting populist-outsider themes.

And he fondly recalls what will probably stand as the high point of his campaign, the Sleepless Summer Tour rally in Seattle. "I almost fell over," he says, when he first saw the size of that crowd. "It was just stunning to me to look out into a big plaza like that and see people as far as you can go. It's the only time I've ever been nervous during the campaign. I just went, 'My God, I'm responsible for all these people.'"

Whatever happens from here on out, that memory will stick with him forever. Howard Dean, you see, will always have Seattle.