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Falling fast in New Hampshire

Howard Dean's revved up rallying cry to his Iowa supporters may be one for the history books.

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
Published January 23, 2004

MANCHESTER, N.H. - Howard Dean's howling speech Monday night has become a defining moment in the presidential campaign.

The speech, along with his third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, has reinforced the fears of Democrats who have wondered whether the former Vermont governor has the polish to win the presidency.

Stephen Taylor, New Hampshire's agriculture commissioner, said the speech "was probably okay for a union hall. On TV, it looked crazy."

Taylor, who is uncommitted in the presidential campaign, added, "After watching Monday night, a lot of people are backing away from Dean."

The speech, which has been rerun endlessly on cable news channels, is a reminder that a single moment can change a campaign overnight.

Andy Smith, a pollster at the University of New Hampshire, said Dean's poll ratings were falling before the speech, but it has accelerated his drop. It "crystallizes the fears that voters had about Dean," Smith said. "It was, in a nutshell, all the things people were concerned about - the temper, the potential instability, the sense that he is not ready for prime time and not ready to deal with pressure."

Florida Sen. Bob Graham said, "Unfortunately, there have been incidents in history ... where a few seconds can crush a lifetime."

Dean, the overwhelming favorite just a few weeks ago, suddenly is scrambling to regain his footing.

He led Sen. John Kerry by 29 points in a December poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. That lead has shrunk to only 2 points, within the poll's margin of error. The poll was conducted Sunday through Tuesday, so two of the three nights were before Dean's speech.

In some polls released Thursday, Kerry has jumped in front.

Dean gave the speech to volunteers and staffers Monday night after he placed third in Iowa. He got fired up and began shouting states where he hoped to win. He punched his fist in the air and let out a loud yelp that sounded like "Yeeeeeaaahhhhh!"

Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, said he was amazed to see Dean, the Democratic front-runner for several months, make such an outburst. "I just don't remember a serious candidate ever doing that sort of thing," he said.

Dean was immediately ridiculed by political commentators and comedians. CNN's Tucker Carlson said, "Howard Dean scared a lot of children last night." Chortler, a satiric newsletter, wrote that although Dean finished a disappointing third in Iowa, his scream inspired two gorillas at the Des Moines Zoo to mate.

On the Web, people posted songs that incorporated the screech into dance music. One was called The Dean Goes Nuts Remix.

In political circles, the speech has been called Dean's "I Have a Scream" address.

During a campaign stop in Lebanon on Thursday, Dean poked fun at himself, saying, "I still have not recovered my voice from my screeching in Iowa."

He told reporters, "I didn't ever claim to be perfect. I am passionate. I don't think we can beat George Bush without some intensity."

In an interview with Diane Sawyer with his wife, Dr. Judith Steinberg Dean, at his side, Dean said, "I did it. I own it. I'm not perfect. It's done." He also turned to late-night comedy, taping an appearance on Late Show with David Letterman and presenting Thursday's Top 10 list. The subject of the list was "Ways, I, Howard Dean, can turn things around." They included: "Switch to decaf." "Marry Rachel on the final episode of Friends." "Show a little more skin." "Oh, I don't know - maybe fewer, red-faced rants."

Dean supporters have defended his performance. "It was too hot for TV," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif. "But it was marvelous for people in the room."

Political scientists said Dean's Monday night performance was reminiscent of two other New Hampshire moments that transformed presidential campaigns.

In 1972, Sen. Edmund S. Muskie got choked up in front of the headquarters of the Manchester Union-Leader after he and his wife were harshly criticized by the conservative paper. There is still debate about whether he actually cried, but the incident helped cripple his campaign.

In 1980, at a debate paid for by Ronald Reagan, the moderator tried to cut off an answer by the former California governor, but Reagan snapped "I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green!"

Reagan got the name wrong - it was Mr. Breen - but the comment established Reagan as an authoritative figure and helped to erase doubts about his candidacy.

Graham said Dean should hope his comment does not become a defining moment like Republican George Romney's remark that he had been "brainwashed" into supporting the Vietnam War, which doomed his 1968 presidential bid.

Smith, the pollster, said Dean's speech probably will go down in the history books. "It was really a stunning sort of display," Smith said. "I believe it will go down as one of those political events we talk about 30-40 years from now."

- Times political editor Adam Smith contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press.

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