In downtown Seattle, 8,000 screaming, hooting, Bush-hating liberals gather on a Sunday afternoon to cheer on the man they hope will save America from George W. Bush. If it is not obvious before the "People-Powered Howard Sleepless Summer Tour"--10 cities in under four days--arrives in the Emerald City, there is no doubt by the end of the evening: Former Vermont governor Howard Dean will once and for all prove that Seattle is an impregnable Dean bastion.

The crowd at Westlake Center overflows across Pine Street and spills out onto the streets around the park as people wait for the arrival of the compact bull terrier of a man who has won their allegiance by expressing their fears about the direction of the country. Everywhere you look you see nothing but Seattleites waving blue "Dean for America" signs.

The candidate is late arriving from a fundraiser at a nearby hotel, and the crowd is restless. People begin chanting for Dean, at times drowning out the introductory speakers. The minutes pass, and the crowd's impatience mushrooms. It feels as if there might be a riot if Dean fails to appear.

But Howard Dean is not about to miss this moment. He strides onto the stage, 45 minutes late. He marvels at the size of the roaring crowd as he stands before a huge "Jobs for America" backdrop. "Holy cow!" he exclaims. "This is the biggest rally Dean for America has ever seen."

The previous record for a Dean rally was set only hours before, when Dean spit his partisan fire to about 4,000 raucous supporters in Portland, Oregon. Facing a crowd that is easily twice the size in Seattle, Dean pauses for a moment, grinning the mischievous grin of a teenage boy who has just pulled one over on the adults in authority--like the other, more established, and formerly better-known candidates for the Democratic nomination. These other Democrats--what were their names again?--might as well write off Seattle; in his surging liberal revivalist crusade to claim the American presidency, Dean long ago locked up this city.

Dean's speech gets off to a low-key start--at least by Dean standards. Perhaps the candidate is worn out from a lack of sleep. Seattle is the fifth stop on Dean's 10-city Sleepless Summer Tour, and, having been along for every leg of the trip so far, I know I'm feeling exhausted, dirty, and hot. The president is destroying the economy with his tax cuts--Dean tells the crowd this as he begins his speech--losing jobs and starving desperately needed social programs. The Bush administration, he contends, slowly revving up, is ignoring the debacle that is American health care, and ignoring the growing ranks of the uninsured. The thousands of formerly self-doubting liberals spread out before him roars its approval.

When he begins to tick off a list of the untruths the Bush administration used to justify the Iraq invasion, each time beginning with, "The president told us...," the crowd goes crazy. There was no link between the Iraqi regime and al Qaeda, he says, despite what the president told us. There were no uranium purchases from Niger. Iraq was not on the verge of developing nuclear weapons, he says. Our government falsely claimed to know where the weapons of mass destruction were, he says. "Lies," the crowd shouts. Dean derisively refers to President Bush as the "tough fella defending America" who cut veterans' health care and service members' pay, who skimps on homeland security, and who stands idly by as North Korea moves toward stockpiling nuclear arms. "The president is all hat and no cattle when it comes to defense," he asserts, and the cutting aggression in his voice--not to mention his metaphorical jab at the rancher-in-chief--lets the crowd know who the real tough guy will be in a match-up between George and Howard.

Dean doesn't end his speech on Iraq, despite it being the clear crowd-pleaser. He touts his forthcoming economic plan, which he says will be geared toward boosting small businesses rather than large corporations, since small businesses won't export jobs overseas. And as he has throughout this campaign, Dean lays into the Democratic Party--and by not-so-subtle inference, his inside-the-Beltway rivals for the nomination--for abandoning its principles in a failed quest for greater electoral success. "I'll make you proud to vote Democrat again.... You have the power to take this party back and make it stand for something again," he tells the cheering throng. "We're going to take our country back."

* * *

As we move from city to city, it's clear that attendance at all of the events will outstrip expectations. Some, like the rallies in Portland, Seattle, and San Antonio, so far exceed expectations that the candidate, his staff, and the press along for the ride all seem equally stunned. How can the crowds be so passionate and so large given that it is still the summer of 2003--a good five months before the Iowa caucus even kick off the nominating season? In a park in Falls Church, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., more than 3,000 come out. After a flight to Milwaukee, a 10:00 p.m. rally on a Saturday night in an airplane hangar draws 800 supporters. After his speech, I speak with 21-year-old Manny Tempel, who drove six hours from Minnesota with a friend to attend the event. I ask her why she's so devoted to Dean. It's the way he delivers his message, she says: "He makes it easy to understand what he is saying. He has the ability to inspire people."

After Milwaukee the tour stops in Boise, Idaho, on route to Portland. While Idaho is a safely Republican state, the Dean campaign says it intends to compete in all 50 states. And in Idaho, that safely Republican state, hundreds of Dean supporters turn out at the airport. Less than an hour later we are back on the plane for the flight to Portland. Like Seattle, Portland is a huge Dean town. In Oregon, he has prominent supporters who appear on stage with him, including Secretary of State Bill Bradbury and former Governor Barbara Roberts.

After Dean's Portland rally, Bradbury tells me that like so many of the former governor's early supporters, he was initially attracted to Dean because of the candidate's forthright opposition to unilateral intervention in Iraq, but was won over for good upon learning more about Dean's centrist record in Vermont. Bradbury's support is particularly significant, since he is not only a centrist Democrat, but also a former chair of the Democratic Leadership Council in Oregon. National DLC leaders have launched fierce attacks on Dean as his star has risen, painting him as a soft-on-defense liberal extremist who will lead the party to electoral disaster if he wins the nomination. So far those attacks have largely backfired, damaging the DLC's reputation among rank-and-file Democrats more than they have hurt Dean.

* * *

Back in April, local Dean supporters held a meet-up at a pizza place on Capitol Hill that attracted nearly 200 people--months before Dean visited Seattle. ["Digging Howard Dean" April 10, 2003.] In May, when I spent a couple of days tracking Dean in New Hampshire ["Tough Guy" May 15, 2003], an audience of a couple hundred for a Dean event was considered large. Looking out from the press bullpens at the thousands of excited faces in suburban D.C., Portland, Seattle, San Antonio and six other cities, it is clear Dean has come a very long way in 100 days. Gone as well are the doubts some of his supporters had about his electability.

After the Seattle rally, Washington State Democratic Party chair Paul Berendt expresses his amazement at Dean's appeal. "I've never seen a turnout like this. It's huge for this early in the campaign," he enthuses. "There's magic around Howard Dean."

There's not a lot of magic on Howard Dean's plane. For the crowds at the rallies, it's all excitement and energy and red meat. For those of us on the plane--reporters and campaign staffers alike--it's all cramped airline seats, bag lunches, warm sodas, and uncomfortable bus rides to the rallies. When we do make it to a hotel, we only score about three or four hours of sleep before we board Dean's chartered 1960s-era 737, dubbed the "Grassroots Express." It is a grueling pace. On the plane, Dean admits the schedule is tiring. He's able to draw energy from his growing throngs of energized supporters. Unfor- tunately, I'm not.

Still, there is some fun to be had on the Grassroots Express. As the already bedraggled press corps is being checked through security on the tarmac of Portland International Airport on Saturday after- noon, twenty four hours and four cities into into the tour, Dean stands off to the side mimicking his most distinctive stump-speech gestures for one of the photographers who now chronicle his every public move. He raises his arms from his side into a two-thumbs-up pose while mouthing, "You have the power," the signature slogan he shouts repeatedly to close many of his campaign appearances. The rest of the press waiting to board the chartered 737 watches the spectacle and titters. Then Dean stops, chuckling at the sheer ridiculousness of it all.

There are other light moments. On Tuesday morning, Dean boards the plane at 6:00 a.m. for the flight to Chicago. Looking at campaign manager Joe Trippi, who has emerged as a cult figure among Dean supporters and political operatives for his prescient use of the Internet to build Dean's campaign, Dean mentions that he has just read an excellent article in a San Antonio daily touting the Internet's ability to revolutionize grassroots organizing. The article quotes Jim Jordan, John Kerry's campaign manager, about the net's potential. "Eat your heart out, Joe Trippi," Dean tells his web-organizing guru between peals of laughter. Such is life these days for the only candidate with discernible momentum in the race to capture the Democratic presidential nomination. It is easy under such circumstances to laugh off the slights, and to enjoy the string of successes.

* * *

The Grassroots Express carries a rotating cast of roughly 30 members of the media at any given time. There are reporters from major newspapers, Eleanor Clift from Newsweek, and a guy from Time, a slew of television people, and a woman making a documentary for HBO about the presidential candidates. A guy from Rolling Stone hops on board part way through the tour, as does one from the New Yorker. There are three alt-weekly guys, including myself, on the trip.

While this exalted position in the center of a media firestorm is a relatively new experience for Howard Dean, it is one he has taken to with gusto. On Sunday morning he strolls to the back of the plane, where the media people are encamped--campaign staffers sit in front, campaign guests and politicos occupy the middle seats--to informally chat with reporters. Though he can still be prickly with the press, especially when he feels he is being challenged, he seems looser than he did back in May when I interviewed him in New Hampshire.

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It is clear the Dean campaign is engaged in an effort to broaden his appeal beyond the core of white, liberal anti-Bush activists. The Dean campaign's effort to reach out to minorities is evident at almost every stop on the tour, as black and Hispanic warm-up speakers share the stage with the former governor. After overnighting in Seattle, the Grassroots Express flies to Spokane for a town-hall meeting in a poor and racially diverse neighborhood known as Felony Flats. Organizers had expected a couple of hundred at most; 900 people show up. After Spokane, we fly down to Texas. A $125-and-up Monday-afternoon fundraiser in an Austin roadhouse draws more than 500. That night in San Antonio, several thousand Texans show up to hear a supercharged Dean.

As I listen to Dean speak in city after city, it also becomes clear that he is shifting the emphasis in his stump speech to highlight his more moderate views. While he continues to criticize the Iraq war, he is now giving greater priority to the economy and his plans for creating jobs and balancing the budget. It may seem risky for Dean to shift his emphasis away from his signature issue--his early, passionate, and prescient opposition to invading Iraq made him a hero to Bush-hating lefties; won't he risk losing support if he overemphasizes his moderate stands on other issues?--but Dean's entire campaign has been about taking risks, defying expectations, and upsetting the conventional wisdom.

* * *

The Democratic presidential nomination, which will be decided over a frenzied six-week period beginning in January, is now Dean's to lose. He is not yet a classic front-runner--he lacks the party support for that--but as campaign manager Joe Trippi says during an in-flight interview, Dean is mounting "the strongest insurgency in the history of the [Democratic] Party." While insurgent candidacies almost always collapse in the face of the superior financial and institutional support marshaled by the Establishment front-runner, this nominating cycle is different, Trippi argues. Never before has an insurgent shot to the top of the heap before a consensus Establishment candidate has emerged.

The latest polls show Dean leading in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states to apportion delegates first. And the polls show Dean's support building across much of the rest of the country. Last quarter, Dean raised a stunning $7.6 million, more than any of the other, better-known candidates, with much of that coming in over the Internet. Some of the political reporters on the plane speculate that Dean could pull in as much as $10 million this quarter, though Trippi says it is impossible to know how much money the campaign will raise at this point.

It is this influx of money that has made a high-profile, general-election-style national campaign swing like the Sleepless Summer Tour possible. The fundraising has also brought credibility with the media. A few weeks ago, Dean had the pleasure of seeing himself on the cover of Time and Newsweek--and he was the subject of a long inside spread in U.S. News & World Report--all in the same week. Unless one of the other guys can beat him in Iowa (Gephardt) or New Hampshire (Kerry), it will be difficult if not impossible to halt his momentum--which doesn't mean, of course, that Dean will win if he winds up being nominated. Bush, despite everything, is still popular, although his poll numbers have fallen off dramatically. Nevertheless, all bets are off if the situation in Iraq stabalizes in the next six months--though that seems increasingly unlikely--or if the economy rebounds strongly.

* * *

Dean's strength in Seattle has been growing for months. On his first visit on May 15, Dean filled the 1,200 seats of Town Hall, and scores of people were turned away. On June 23, the evening of Dean's official campaign kickoff in Burlington, Vermont, more than 800 turned out at an auditorium on Seattle's waterfront just to watch Dean's announcement speech on a live video feed.

But the Seattle rally, along with the others along the tour, indicate a different level of support altogether. None of the other eight Democratic candidates can hope to match these kinds of turnouts. They know it, the media knows it, and you better believe Howard Dean knows it. "We started with no money, no staff, no name recognition," Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi says when asked about the Dean surge. "Obviously, Howard Dean is connecting with the voters."

But Dean's ability to fire up his audiences has those who knew him in Vermont scratching their heads. During his 11-year run as governor, Dean was not known as a scintillating speaker. "I was a bore," Dean cheerfully concedes when I point this out to him on the plane. He attributes his new style to his willingness to speak off-the-cuff. "I don't speak well from prepared texts," he says. Now at his appearances on the campaign trail, Dean speaks without notes. The various themes in his stump speech remain the same from appearance to appearance, though he articulates them slightly differently at each stop. Not having to repeat his message by rote is the secret to his newfound performance ability, he believes.

There is more to it than that. The liberal activists who hold decisive sway in the nominating process appear to be casting their lot with the candidate--despite his centrist views and record. The reason is that rightly or wrongly--and there are many politically astute observers who believe the latter--they believe that the only hope of defeating Bush in 2004 is unchecked aggression and unconflicted partisanship, two key hallmarks of the Dean campaign from the outset. (And hallmarks, it should be said, of every successful Republican campaign for president in the last 30 years.) This is a lesson that Newt Gingrich taught the Republican Party, one that the Democratic Party has yet to learn--save Howard Dean. The reality today is that the number of swing voters is small, and the country is so divided, that you win elections by charging up your base. As Washington State party chair Paul Berendt sees it, it is a willingness "to go after Bush without reserve" that has driven Dean to the top of the pack.

The tour is confirming Dean's status as a heavyweight contender. Drawing crowds to make the other candidates green with envy, and inspiring white-hot passion in those audiences, Dean is making a statement, and the press is all ears. He is now treated by reporters like what he clearly is--a major political player--and by the public like what he is becoming--a political rock star.

That this will continue is not at all a sure thing. Five months is a lifetime in politics, and the Dean camp is bracing for a slew of attacks from the other candidates. Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman has begun touting himself as the centrist anti-Dean, following his DLC allies in branding Dean an extremist. "We expect to be attacked, of course," Dean tells the press en route to Chicago. Asking if he will fight back, he smiles, clearly itching for the fight. "We'll deal with that when we get there," he says.

Meanwhile, the aggressive risk-taking tactics of the Dean campaign continue. Dean has been the first to hire full-time state coordinators in eight early primary and caucus states, including Washington. He was the first to air television ads in Iowa, New Hampshire--even Texas, while the president vacationed nearby. On Tuesday morning, Trippi holds an impromptu press conference on the plane to announce that this quarter the campaign expects to break Bill Clinton's record haul (for a Democrat) in a year prior to a presidential election. (Clinton raised $10.3 million in the third quarter of 1995.) Because of this bounty, the campaign will begin running television ads in cities in six states next week. Total cost: about $1 million.

Dean is taking nothing for granted and intends to build on his momentum in Seattle--his commericials go on the air here next Friday. But if Dean has Seattle locked up, isn't it a waste of money to run ads here? No. Refer back to the playbook: Keep your base fired up. Dean has a huge, activist, energetic base in Seattle and he intends to keep them revved up.

Maybe he's just returning the favor, because Seattle, Dean says, revved him up. Toward the end of the tour when one of the other reporters aboard the Grassroots Express asked Dean to describe the most important personal moment, Dean brought up the Seattle rally--I didn't ask him the question and I wasn't standing by taking notes; I got this quote from the reporter later, so Dean wasn't pandering to his Seattle supporters when he said this about last Sunday's rally in Westlake Center:

"Seeing all those people out there [in Seattle]," Dean said. "The enormity of it all really struck me. For the first time I realized what it really means to be President of the United States--seeing all those people out there, counting on you."

sandeep@thestranger.com

To read a transcript of Howard Dean's speech in Seattle, go to www.thestranger.com.

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