In retrospect, it's clear that long before Howard Dean's bid for the White House ended, he had become more enamored with the passion than the presidency, more invested in the crusade than the campaign. Somewhere along the way, Dean fell in love with the love, with his positively Promethean talent for firing up the liberal faithful. In the buttoned-down world of presidential politics, where emotion and zeal are viewed with the deepest suspicion, that sealed his doom as a candidate. But it also cemented his role as the voice of the long-suffering liberal base of the Democratic Party.

Dean made it official last Thursday, March 18, coming back to Seattle, where the fire burned earliest and brightest, to announce formally his new group, Democracy for America, dedicated to fanning the flames of grassroots activism. Before some 600 cheering partisans who turned out at 9:30 a.m. at the Westin Hotel to hear the man who first gave voice to their anger and who so effectively animated their hopes for progressive renewal, Dean said that while the campaign may be over, the movement is just beginning.

That movement, he explained, will have twin goals: first, removing President Bush and the "reckless right-wingers" from power, and second, fundamentally reshaping the country--and the Democratic Party--over the long term, by electing thousands of progressive candidates into local and national offices.

In full attack-dog mode for much of the speech, Dean's bark has lost none of its bite. As he denounced, in familiar staccato cadences, "the most radical administration in our lifetime," his voice rose and took on an angry edge. His face flushed pink. His finger wagged. For the faithful, who rose to their feet repeatedly to egg him on, it was as if last December's glory days, when the nomination seemed so tantalizingly close, had never ended.

But what was most interesting about Dean's announcement (which he later repeated in San Francisco and New York) was that he seemed genuinely determined --even passionate--about electing John Kerry president. This is a jarring if commendable volte-face. In Seattle, just before Washington's February 7 primary, Dean pummeled Kerry as an inside-the-Beltway tool of special interests. Back then he saw "a little bit of George Bush in John Kerry." Now, after a cordial meeting with the presumptive nominee in Washington, D.C., a little more than a week ago, Dean is singing a sweeter tune, saying his agreements with his former rival far outweigh their differences. The my-way-or-the-highway candidate has morphed in defeat into a genuine team player. He will endorse Kerry on March 25.

That's good news for Kerry. Facing a withering Bush media barrage painting him as a soft-on-terror, tax-and-spend, ultra-liberal wimp, Kerry has been tacking to the center, relentlessly touting his manly virtues and pro-military views. He has no choice, but the strategy runs the risk of further alienating disaffected antiwar liberal voters in swing states like Oregon and Washington, especially with spoiler Ralph Nader spitting his poison from the fringe left. Dean's full-bore support, however, could do wonders in terms of shoring up the commitment of the party's liberal wing to the Kerry bid.

Moreover, Dean's new organization will funnel small donor contributions to progressive candidates in tight, down-ticket races and will serve as a clearinghouse for recruiting candidates and training activists to work as field organizers in those campaigns. Wisely, he's not trying to reinvent the wheel. Dean is allying himself with the D.C.-based, but grassroots-oriented, 21st Century Democrats, an outfit that has developed invaluable experience over the last 16 years doing the latter, growing into the nation's 14th largest PAC along the way.

Kelly Young, the 21st Century Dems' executive director, says the group tentatively plans to target six battleground states during this presidential election--Oregon will be one, the others are not yet finalized--by training and targeting activists sent to them by Dean's DFA. "Our bread and butter is electing progressives up and down the ballot," she says. "We see the basis for a great partnership." And so it is that the odd man out in this presidential cycle has finally come in from the cold.

sandeep@thestranger.com