After a summer of tending to the grassroots, the Democrats who aspire to their party’s 2004 presidential nomination were busy harvesting support from key constituencies around Labor Day. Former House minority leader Dick Gephardt unveiled his twelfth endorsement from a major labor union, the 300,000-member Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers. Senator John Kerry, who has waged a bilingual campaign to win over the burgeoning Latino voting bloc, secured the backing of former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros and former Los Angeles mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa. Former Senator Carol Moseley Braun pumped needed energy into her campaign by winning support from the National Organization for Women and the National Women’s Political Caucus. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich appeared with country singer Willie Nelson in the first-caucus state of Iowa, where the Farm Aid stalwart declared Kucinich the friend of the farmer.

But for all the political preening by the other contenders, only former Vermont Governor Howard Dean seemed to be gaining traction with the party’s base. Indeed, Dean’s tech-savvy campaign of mouse pads, meet-ups and moms-on-a-mission was flying so high that no one was paying much attention to the other candidates. Dean, who flavors his criticisms of the Bush Administration’s war in Iraq with the extra salsa of righteous indignation, has struck a chord with Democrats. And with polls tracking the decline of Bush’s once daunting approval ratings, the Vermonter is surfing the rising tide of opposition to a President who has failed to deliver peace in Iraq or prosperity at home. “We’re gonna win,” Dean told the cheering throngs at rallies on a furious coast-to-coast tour in late August. “We’re gonna beat George Bush.”

While the other candidates continue to position themselves as the progressive populist (Kucinich), the mainstream liberal (Kerry), labor’s champion (Gephardt), the women’s rights contender (Moseley Braun), the civil rights contender (the Rev. Al Sharpton), the vaguely Clintonesque Southerner (North Carolina Senator John Edwards) the serious senior senator (Florida’s Bob Graham) or the Democrat even a Republican could love (Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman), Dean is satisfied to run as the guy who really, really wants to put it to Bush. And grassroots Democrats–even those who know Dean’s many flaws–are eating it up. “I like what Kucinich says. But this time, it’s got to be pragmatism, pragmatism, pragmatism,” says seriously progressive lawyer Amy Scarr, a Wisconsin Dean backer. “I just think Dean can win.”

Drawing crowds of 5,000 in Portland, 10,000 in Seattle and at least that many in New York City, Dean’s August rallies often had the feel of revival meetings. Dean volunteers describe themselves as political born-agains, delivered from disengagement by a self-help campaign in which supporters chant “We are Howard Dean!” “A year ago, I felt hopeless and helpless and discouraged as George Bush rolled his agenda through Congress,” declared Melita Schuessler, a self-described “former political wallflower” who introduced the candidate in Milwaukee. “Now, because of the Dean campaign, I am full of hope.”

To a greater extent than any other candidate, Dean has recognized that what Democrats want in 2004 is a Bush-bashing populist. And even if that is not who the buttoned-down former governor happens to be, he is having fun playing the part. “We’re going to outwork George Bush, and this time, the person who gets the most votes is going to the White House,” Dean yells, as his audiences chant “No more Floridas!” Like a white rapper from the suburbs sampling the sounds of the ghetto, the moderate Dean has grabbed the language of the left and turned it into applause lines. When he mentions Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, he pauses, as shouts from the crowd identify the trio as “Liars!” At a Saturday-night rally in Milwaukee, a kid in a Che Guevara T-shirt stands to the side of the crowd waving a Dean for America sign. In San Francisco, progressive mayoral candidate Tom Ammiano endorses Dean as the “courageous” candidate. In Iowa, liberal stalwart David Loebsack says, “On issues, of course, Kucinich is closest to me,” but he is backing Dean because, as he puts it, Dean delivers the “red meat” better than any other candidate.

Loebsack, a political science professor who has met most of the candidates, is not naïve. “I am fully aware of Dean’s past positions on many issues and the fact that in the mid-1990s he was in many ways the darling of the DLC,” he explains, referring to the corporate-friendly Democratic Leadership Council, which now criticizes Dean as the George McGovern of 2004. “However, I believe he has moved significantly in a progressive direction in recent years, and especially since he began his run for the presidency.”

Loebsack isn’t alone in that assessment. Bob Muehlenkamp, the former organizing director for the Teamsters who helped pull together the US Labor Against the War movement, is now helping Dean round up labor support. Muehlenkamp had heard all the complaints about Dean’s record. “Frankly, I was skeptical when the Dean people approached me. I had to be convinced,” says Muehlenkamp. “But my experience of working with the guy has been a good one. I think his instincts are progressive, and I think he has been genuinely moved by the experience of this campaign. He recognized the anger at Bush–and at the Democratic Party’s failure to challenge Bush–early on. He spoke to that, and the response was phenomenal. He’s trusting his instincts. I think he’s very genuine in what he is saying.”

Will Dean continue to trust those instincts or tack to the center? “I can’t say for sure,” Loebsack acknowledges.

Dean critics say the tack to the center has already begun–the candidate recently told a Florida reporter he was not for easing sanctions on Cuba. But even as he has achieved the front-runner status that was supposed to temper his candidacy, Dean has retained his rhetorical populism. In fact, he is grafting on new messages to attract African-American and Latino voters to his disproportionately white campaign. A onetime free trader, he is reaching out to union members with a message designed to undercut Gephardt and Kucinich, drawing cheers from Midwestern crowds with pledges to stop “shipping our jobs to China.”

That’s not a new line on the campaign trail. Gephardt’s been working this turf since 1988. And Kucinich’s denunciations of NAFTA, the WTO and permanent most-favored-nation trading status for China are more passionate and precise than anything heard from Dean. Yet Dean is getting cheers at union gatherings, just as he continues to draw the Democratic activists, the poll numbers and the campaign contributions–he is on track to raise more than $10 million this quarter, a fundraising record, and the money is flowing so fast that Dean aides talk about rejecting federal matching funds so they can overshoot fundraising limits that go with the grants. Pols who once dismissed Dean’s rise as a temporary venting of Democratic frustrations have pretty much given up on suggesting that his campaign has peaked.

For all the grumbling from the DLC about his being “unelectable,” Dean has pulled himself up from the asterisk level to the front covers of Time and Newsweek. And, Loebsack notes, when he went to a Dean “meet-up” in August, he found that many in the room were Independents and some were Republicans. In Minnesota, State Senator Scott Dibble, a progressive Democrat who was close to the late Senator Paul Wellstone and who now co-chairs Dean’s campaign in that state, credits Dean’s web-savvy campaign for bringing thousands of new people–especially young voters–into the process. “I just think that what Dean has done so far suggests that he knows how to put together a campaign that will build the Democratic base, and that’s what we need to do if we’re going to beat Bush,” says Dibble. “Dean’s gotten this far by running a campaign that’s smarter, better at organizing and better at going after Bush. That’s a big part of why I’m with him.”

Dean’s success has made him the prime target of his competitors, even as they attempt to match his Bush-bashing–as several did during the September 4 debate. After trying to graft some of Dean’s anti-Bush anger onto their tepid stump speeches–as if reading a script, Gephardt declared, “To beat this President, we have to be bold”–the other Democratic contenders started to recognize that rhetorical flourishes would not be enough to slow the bandwagon of an emerging front-runner. Kerry, who now trails Dean by twenty-one poll points in New Hampshire and who has fallen to third place in Iowa surveys, “re-launched” his campaign in early September–positioning himself as a fighter unafraid of throwing jabs in Dean’s direction. Gephardt, who had hoped labor support would carry him into contention, has been stung by suggestions from union leaders that he needs to stir a little Dean-style excitement at the grassroots; this in turn has led Gephardt’s camp to take some of the sharpest shots at Dean’s less-than-stellar record on issues such as free trade. “Howard Dean was one of the leading governors to support NAFTA and even attended the initial White House ceremony with Canadian and Mexican leaders in 1993,” read a Gephardt campaign statement issued after more than 100 Iowa union activists signed a Labor Day newspaper advertisement backing Dean. Following his delivery of an early August speech that portrayed Dean as too liberal, nowhere-man Joe Lieberman ended the month by attacking Dean from the left on issues such as protecting Social Security.

As the Democratic competitors geared up for fall television campaigns in early primary and caucus states, several recorded ads attacking Dean–though they kept the ads on hold, fearing that, like Lieberman’s criticisms of Dean’s antiwar stance, these hits would only enhance the Vermonter’s standing. Aides to Kerry and Gephardt quietly acknowledge that their candidates continue to suffer slippage at the grassroots because of their votes last fall to authorize Bush’s use of force against Iraq. “If Kerry had voted against the resolution, the race would be over,” said a Kerry staffer. “Without the war, Dean’s got nothing. But, because he opposed the use-of-force resolution, he says he’s the only Democrat with the guts to oppose Bush. Of course, he has to ignore Kucinich.”

Dennis Kucinich did not merely vote against the use-of-force resolution; the Ohio Congressman played a central role in organizing Congressional opposition to the war. He has been a far more steadfast foe of Bush’s policies at home and abroad than Dean. Yet, while Dean has ridden an antiwar stance from obscurity to front-runner status, Kucinich remains in the doldrums, polling near the bottom of the field in Iowa and New Hampshire, virtually unnoted by the national media and struggling to raise the money he will need to match the first-tier contenders in the fall’s TV ad wars. While Moseley Braun and Sharpton, both consistent progressives, have been slow to mount serious efforts nationwide, Kucinich really has tried–visiting Iowa repeatedly; winning endorsements from Barbara Ehrenreich, Ed Asner and Ani DiFranco, and a kind word from Ralph Nader; running second to Dean in the “virtual primary”; and raising enough money to build basic campaign infrastructure from Maine to California. “It’s bizarre. Dennis is out there mounting a genuinely progressive campaign,” says Steve Cobble, a veteran aide to the Rev. Jesse Jackson who now advises Kucinich. “Yet the media keep calling Dean the progressive, the liberal, even though Dennis is the one taking the progressive positions–just as he is the one who has taken political risks to advance them.”

Cobble has a point. It is Kucinich who has fought the hard fights against the Bush Administration in Congress–frequently going against the party leadership in exactly the manner Dean backers say Democrats should. As co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, Kucinich has led challenges to the Bush Administration not just on the war but on nuclear disarmament, military spending and the Patriot Act. Even now, while Dean supports keeping US troops in Iraq, Kucinich calls for bringing them home. While Dean says he represents Paul Wellstone’s “democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” there are few issues on which Kucinich cannot claim to be a truer heir to Wellstone’s progressive populist mantle.

Where Dean’s record on farm and food policy issues is, at best, mixed, Kucinich is the chief sponsor of Congressional legislation to label genetically modified foods, and he was an ally of Wellstone in struggles to break up the agribusiness conglomerates. While Dean has a history of supporting open-ended free-trade agreements, Kucinich has worked as hard–sometimes harder–than Gephardt to defeat them. In this campaign, it is Kucinich more than any other contender who has forced issues of militarism and globalization into the debate, with plans for slashing the Pentagon budget and ending US participation in NAFTA.

Even on the social issues where conservative commentators portray Dean as the embodiment of liberalism, it is Kucinich who goes for the bold. While Dean gets credit for signing Vermont’s “civil union” law for gays and lesbians, it is Kucinich who supports gay marriage. While Dean has a much longer and better record of support for abortion rights, Kucinich is the candidate who promises to appoint only prochoice jurists to the federal bench. Dean supports the death penalty in some cases; Kucinich is an abolitionist. Dean has in the past embraced proposals to raise the retirement age; Kucinich has fought with the fervor of an old New Dealer to expand Social Security protections. While Dean, a physician born to privilege in New York City, shies away from embracing single-payer healthcare reform, saying, “If you want to totally change the healthcare system, I’m not your guy,” Kucinich, the working-class kid from Cleveland who has gone without healthcare coverage in his life, is a passionate advocate for a national program to guarantee healthcare coverage for all. At the end of August, Kucinich told cheering delegates at the United Electrical workers union convention in Pittsburgh, “Unless a Democratic candidate is willing to step forward and challenge this [healthcare] system, he has no business carrying the banner of this party.”

Kucinich has found allies among progressives who know Dean. Ben Cohen, co-founder of the Vermont-based Ben & Jerry’s ice cream concern and a prominent advocate for progressive causes, is an outspoken Kucinich backer. So is Vermont’s poet laureate, Grace Paley, a leader of Feminists for Kucinich. Vermont’s Independent Congressman, Bernie Sanders, while he is not making an endorsement in the Democratic race, praises Kucinich at town meetings. Qualms about Dean among progressives in his home state are a reflection of the fact that during more than a decade as Vermont’s chief executive, he rarely governed from the left. Echoing Bill Clinton’s moves at the federal level, Dean was a cheerleader for welfare reform who balanced budgets by making painful cuts in state programs. Dean brags on the campaign trail about signing his state’s civil-union legislation but doesn’t mention that he did so only after the state Supreme Court effectively ordered the change. And Dean’s coziness with corporations and conservatives helped inspire formation of the Vermont Progressive Party, a coalition of labor, farm and social-justice activists that won almost 10 percent of the vote for activist Anthony Pollina’s 2000 challenge to Dean.

In a 2002 interview, given as he launched his presidential campaign, Dean was asked about criticism from Vermonters. “The Progressives hate me because they’re all big liberals and I’m not, and I’ve stopped them on many occasions,” he declared. Dean continues to tell interviewers that he is no man of the left. “I don’t mind being characterized as a ‘liberal’–I just don’t happen to think it’s true,” he said in February.

What Dean’s opponents fail to understand, however, is that no candidate will overtake Dean merely by pointing out his inconsistencies. His supporters are not blind to their man’s weaknesses; rather, they are awed by his strengths: a willingness to blister Bush, and a campaign that seems fluid and flexible on the surface but that is in fact exceptionally disciplined, with plenty of money and even more momentum. If Dean is to be displaced, it will be by a candidate who does a better job of convincing grassroots Democrats he or she will give Bush no quarter and, when the opportunity comes, deliver the knockout blow. Nicholas Johnson, a former FCC commissioner who now teaches at the University of Iowa, argues that Kucinich, not Dean, is best positioned to turn anger at Bush into a progressive populist force capable of attracting disaffected Democrats and Greens to the polls. And he maintains that there is still plenty of time for Kucinich to capitalize on the one-on-one politics of Iowa, where Kucinich backers say “a Dean supporter is a Democrat who hasn’t heard Dennis speak.”

But the force that slows Dean, if it exists, might well come from elsewhere. Bush’s sliding approval ratings and the volatility of a primary contest where predictable front-runners have already been swept aside makes the race appealing to latecomers. Former Vice President Al Gore is delivering policy addresses, and New York Senator Hillary Clinton is reportedly re-examining her options. While odds are against either of them leaping into the race–absent a deadlocked Democratic convention–retired Gen. Wesley Clark could yet get in. The morning line on Clark is that his candidacy could doom Kerry, since the Massachusetts senator has made his status as a Vietnam veteran central to his electability argument. But Clark’s appeal to grassroots Democrats has more to do with his critiques of Administration policy in Iraq and the sense that, as a former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, he might be the Democrat best positioned to knock the legs out from under Bush’s “national security” appeals. That makes him a threat to Dean as well as to Kerry. Already, Clark is polling better than several of the announced candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire. When “Draft Clark” volunteers began to engage Dean backers at farmers’ markets and county fairs in late August, they delivered a message that might yet frustrate Dean as much as he has frustrated the other contenders: “Sure,” the Clark enthusiasts explain, “Dean sounds good on the issues, but Wesley Clark can win.”

More than anything else, those two words–“can win”–set the standard for a Democratic base. Stung by the tepid campaigns mounted by their party in 2000 and 2002, activists started looking for a candidate who was ready to fight in 2004, and Howard Dean made himself that candidate. Critics keep trying to say he has peaked too soon, but so far he’s gone from strength to strength. And that ability to keep coming out on top has given him a mystique that seems to matter more to a lot of Democrats than ideological consistency. At the late-August Communications Workers of America convention in Chicago, Dean drew the sort of thunderous applause usually reserved for endorsed candidates. “I know we disagree with Dean on some things, but you just get a sense that this guy has a plan to win the nomination and beat Bush,” said a top CWA official. “And, when you get down to it, beating Bush is what this is all about.”