Everything about Howard Dean’s “Iowa Perfect Storm” strategy seemed to go perfectly, right up to the point at which Iowans actually started voting in the first-in-the-nation caucuses that began the process of selecting the Democratic nominee for President. As the results started pouring in, one Dean aide noted with cryptic accuracy that in The Perfect Storm of book and movie fame, from which the Dean camp had borrowed its campaign-closing metaphor, the hero did not survive.

It wasn’t quite that bad; Dean did beat Dick Gephardt for one of the three coveted exit tickets from Iowa. But the former Vermont governor, who barely a week earlier had topped polls of prospective caucus-goers, finished far behind a pair of US senators whom he had dismissed as hopelessly weighed down by their Washington “insider” status–John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina. While Gephardt’s support collapsed, despite massive help from industrial unions, Dean held on to his hyperenthusiastic base to win 18 percent of the Iowa vote. Unfortunately for Dean, his supposedly superior organization failed to attract many votes beyond that base. Kerry and Edwards divided the undecided voters and those who were jumping off the sinking Gephardt ship, pumping their totals up to 38 percent for Kerry and 32 percent for Edwards. And while the number of caucus-goers doubled from 2000, when Al Gore and Bill Bradley faced off, Kerry and Edwards benefited more than Dean from the expanded pool of potential supporters. Even in liberal Johnson County, home of the University of Iowa and a hotbed of antiwar sentiment, Kerry, who voted for the 2002 resolution that allowed George W. Bush to send troops to Iraq, easily beat Dean. Edwards, who also voted for the resolution, came within two points of beating him too. Across the state, Edwards benefited from a pact with peace candidate Dennis Kucinich, who urged his backers, in precincts where they lacked enough support to win delegates, to caucus with the North Carolinian, who had taken up some of Kucinich’s populist economic themes.

So what happened to Dean? As he stumbled in debates and bungled policy pronouncements, the presumed front-runner took hits from all sides–including some of the roughest media coverage accorded a candidate since George McGovern got the “liberal loser” treatment in 1972. Yet, Dean poured time and money into targeting the hapless Gephardt rather than addressing the growing concern among Iowans about his chances in a November race with Bush. Dean was the original “Beat Bush” candidate, but Kerry and Edwards radically altered their campaigns to present themselves as stronger applicants for the title. While doing a reasonably good job of maintaining their senatorial demeanors, both Kerry and Edwards ditched tepid stump speeches for addresses that were thick with the populist appeals that Dean had initiated.

Kerry said on caucus night that Iowa had made him a better candidate, and he was right. But it would be more precise to say that his most-hyped opponent made him a better candidate. The once stiff-as-a-board senator began bounding out of helicopters in small-town Iowa and asking startled Democrats to “join me in fighting for an America where the people are in charge,” sounding like no one so much as Howard Dean. The same went for his discussion of issues of war and peace. He still talked about his record as a Vietnam veteran, but now he talked almost as much about his record as an anti-Vietnam War protester, and he updated the appeal by reminding everyone that he had voted against allocating another $87 billion to Bush’s Iraq misadventure. Among the 75 percent of caucus-goers who told exit pollsters that they opposed the war, Kerry, not Dean, emerged as the first choice.

Edwards’s transformation was even more dramatic. The millionaire trial lawyer scrapped his feel-good stump speech and hit the trail with a rap that combined Dean’s passion and Gephardt’s pro-worker populism. Condemning Bush for creating “two Americas”–a sort of nirvana for the rich versus a hell of lost manufacturing jobs and failed farms for the rest–Edwards conveniently glossed over his mixed record on free trade and agribusiness to present himself as a William Jennings Bryan, or at least a Hubert Humphrey, for the twenty-first century. He even fuzzed his stance on Iraq by railing against “war profiteering” on the part of companies that had contributed to the Bush campaign.

Does his loss in Iowa mean that Dean is done? Not necessarily. Dean still has a lot of money in the bank and solid bases of activist support in the forty-nine states that have yet to begin selecting delegates. Iowa does not have to be definitional: New Englander Michael Dukakis finished third there in 1988, and Bill Clinton finished fourth in 1992, and both men went on to win Democratic nominations with relative ease. Dean can take heart from the fact that the race is not over, just more unsettled. And, as voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina prepare to go to the polls, it could get even more unsettled. Kerry and Edwards cannot capitalize fully on their Iowa showings because they must immediately begin to compete for attention and votes with Dean’s still viable campaign and with the wild-card candidacy of Wesley Clark, who skipped Iowa but is surging in New Hampshire. Outside the Iowa limelight, Clark has been cobbling together an ideologically eclectic campaign that has secured support both from Clintonites like Rahm Emanuel and progressive icons like George McGovern and filmmaker Michael Moore.

Dean, who more than anyone else has framed the contest for the 2004 Democratic nomination, must now recognize that he is no longer unique: Kerry, Edwards and Clark have stolen his themes and approaches and buffed them up in what appears to many Democrats to be a more electorally appealing form–just as Clinton stole Paul Tsongas’s anti-deficit rap after Tsongas beat him in New Hampshire in 1992. Dean must either grab the grail back, or resign himself, as Tsongas did, to the fate of the contender who defines his race but does not win it.