In the autumn of 2003, Howard Dean emerged from obscurity to become the front-runner for the Democratic Party nomination in the 2004 U.S. presidential election. Most pundits perceived him as a shoo-in to run against George W. Bush... until Saddam Hussein was captured late in the year.

Dean emerged not through any real strengths of his own: there were better speakers, better policy minds, and more seasoned politicians running against him. What Dean had was a simple combination of good campaign management, good publicity, and an inflammatory anti-war message that was popularly condensed down to the phrase "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take any more!"

The Vermont governor picked up hundreds of thousands of die-hard supporters with this message, which was broadcast by his campaign across the internet, through mainstream print media, and eventually even through conservative broadcast outlets who were more amused than amazed. Karl Rove, Bush's chief policy advisor, chuckled at the Dean campaign and remarked that he would love to run against Dean, mocking the doctor's candidacy and implying that a Bush-Dean race would be a landslide for Bush.

Many in the Democratic Party continue to echo this sentiment. While Dean succeeded in rousing the hearts of progressives who had been averse to "politics as usual" for a long time, he has never succeeded so far in converting the party elite. After Saddam was pulled out of his hiding hole, Dean's rhetoric became even less popularly acceptable than ever.

Dean critics can find much to dislike about the campaign's Democratic superstar:

  • He has made many, many boneheaded remarks in the course of his campaign. Most famously, he said that he wanted to be the candidate for "guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks," which angered African-American groups and probably also offended many guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks. (Counterpoint: He will never be able to equal the number of boneheaded remarks that George W. Bush has made. Additional counterpoint, courtesy of eliserh: Dean will never get as many Confederate flag guys as Bush will.)
  • He has an attitude problem. Supporters say that he's "cocky." Detractors say that he's "brash" or even "arrogant."
  • He has less political experience than any of his competitors, with the possible exception of Al Sharpton.
  • His actual message, which is one of the most centrist in the entire field, has been drowned in a popular conception that he is the Ultra-Liberal reincarnation of George McGovern.
  • He has a sneer permanently bent into his face.
But likewise, Dean still has a number of strengths. The most major of these is his top-notch campaign staff in Burlington, Vermont, which have also netted him one of the largest campaign war chests in the Democratic race. As a doctor, he can claim a smidgen of extra credibility that his competitors lack, especially when tackling the complex issue of health care reform. He also has the most mobilized supporter base, which seems to resemble a coast-to-coast volunteer army at times.

In the Iowa caucus of January 19, 2004, Dean came in a distant third behind John Edwards and John Kerry. It remains to be seen whether he can survive until Election Day.

February update: Okay, stick a fork in 'im. "Today my candidacy may come to an end—but our campaign for change is not over?" What bollocks.

May update: I am now employed by his finance director. Hopefully, this writeup will never fall under said employer's eyes.

July update: I overheard a phone conversation between Howard Dean and Betty Castor a couple of weeks ago. Dean used the word "schmuck" a couple of times. Gotta respect that.