Despite two month of often brutal battering from his foes in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination–or perhaps because of it–Howard Dean remains well positioned to finish at or near the front of the pack in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. Strong finishes in those high-profile contests, which Dean identified more than two years ago as critical to what was then an “impossible dream” candidacy, ought to provide tangible evidence that the former Vermont governor’s Internet-driven, decentralized and seemingly seat-of-the-pants campaign is, in fact, the real thing.

Even before anyone votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, however, Dean has already won the Jan Schakowsky primary. And that may be even more important to his nomination prospects. Schakowsky, an aggressive progressive who is one of the few grassroots organizers currently serving in Congress, does not live anywhere near Iowa or New Hampshire. She represents the northwest side of Chicago and liberal suburbs like Evanston, and she flexes her electoral muscles in the historically rough-and-tumble politics of Cook County, Illinois, not the farm country of the rural Midwest or the small towns of New England. The Illinois primary isn’t until March 16, two months after Iowa decides. So how could Schakowsky’s endorsement, which was barely noted outside her home state, possibly matter as much as the superhyped results from the first caucus and primary states?

The answer is that contests for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations are not marathons run by dynamic contenders who merely gather bursts of energy from good finishes in snowbound Iowa or New Hampshire and then develop what a losing contender for the 1980 GOP nod, George H.W. Bush, referred to as “the Big Mo.” It is important to remember that the momentum Bush I achieved with a surprise win in the Iowa caucuses that year was insufficient to overcome broad enthusiasm in state parties for the man he upset there, Ronald Reagan. Bush poured most of his energy into securing Iowa, but Reagan had a national network of supporters, and that made all the difference.

Rather than marathons, nomination contests are actually fifty state relay races. Momentum surely matters, but not as much as backing from local politicos and activists who take responsibility for winning state after state for the candidate who has secured their support. If Iowa or New Hampshire really were definitional, Estes Kefauver, Gary Hart and Dick Gephardt should have been Democratic nominees, while Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan and John McCain should have carried the GOP banner. They all secured high-profile victories in New Hampshire primaries or Iowa caucuses only to find they lacked the support they needed in the other forty-eight states. Former California Governor Jerry Brown, who made three runs for the Democratic presidential nomination in three different decades, argues that it is this “state-by-state combat” that decides nominations, not showboating wins in Iowa or New Hampshire. “All fifty states send delegates to the convention,” says Brown. “When you start counting delegates, you understand that they all matter.”

Of course, Dean wants to win Iowa and New Hampshire–and if late polls are to be believed, he could take both. But he doesn’t want to be the Hart or McCain of the 2004 race; he wants to head the Democratic ticket. To that end, he and his aides have developed a fifty-state strategy designed to beat the field early and prevail later against the one or two who survive to challenge him in the big-state primaries of late February and early March, when most of the 4,322 delegates will be selected. With just weeks to go before the first votes are cast, one Democratic National Committee insider summed things up by saying, “The assumption now is that Dean will come out of Iowa and New Hampshire strong. That’s not the question anymore. The question is, Who will emerge as the anti-Dean, the candidate who becomes the alternative and then fights it out with Dean in the later primaries?”

The search for an anti-Dean is not entirely motivated by ideological animus and political intrigue. It’s true that much of the establishment, especially those tied to the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council, want to avert a Dean nomination to retain party influence. But it’s also true that many who want to beat Bush sincerely doubt that Dean, a hotheaded candidate who is hardly consistent in his positions and who has a penchant for highly controversial statements and actions, is up to the task. This mix of concern for self-interest and national interest holds the promise of meaningful financial and strategic support for the candidate who emerges as the anti-Dean. All of Dean’s major opponents are jockeying to be that man.

The Dean campaign is fully conscious of the game of Political Survivor that Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, Wesley Clark and the other contenders are playing. “[They] are reverting to a one- or two-state strategy and trying to throw up roadblocks of cash in our way,” explained Joe Trippi, Dean’s campaign manager. The Dean campaign raised a record $15 million in the last quarter of 2003 and is working its base of more than 280,000 contributors to pile up the money it will take to counter the other contenders in the early states and the anti-Dean later on. But the Dean camp’s secret weapon is human, not financial.

That’s where Jan Schakowsky and prominent political players like her at the state and local level come in. Schakowsky, like the late Senator Paul Wellstone, is a savvy liberal who knows not only how to be right on the issues but also how to win elections. When she endorsed Dean she echoed most of his backers, saying she was drawn to him because of his antiwar stance and his willingness to “stake out the bold, clear opposition to the Bush Administration that Democrats have been hungering for.” But there was also a practical side to her selection, as there has been for many of Dean’s backers in the states. “I was attracted to the Dean campaign for the same reason I’m involved in politics,” she says. “He’s the only one who is talking seriously about empowering people, about attracting new people to the process. And he isn’t just talking. I see it. I see the young people who are pouring their hearts and souls into this campaign. He’s energizing and expanding the party’s base.”

Schakowsky made her endorsement in mid-December, as Dean was being savaged by 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joe Lieberman, onetime front-runner Kerry and the Washington chattering classes for failing to embrace fully Bush’s claim that the capture of Saddam Hussein had made the United States more secure. Did the harsh criticism cause her to hesitate? “Not at all,” says Schakowsky. “The thing that struck me was that the other candidates seemed to be more interested in attacking Dean than figuring out how to win an election. It just emphasized to me that Dean is the one with the strategy, and that his strategy is working.”

Schakowsky was not alone. As the other candidates were piling on with increasing ferocity–in hope that one of them might emerge as the “anti-Dean”–Dean quietly piled up one of the most impressive lists of pre-primary endorsements collected by a fresh Democratic contender since Bill Clinton began to work the phones in the fall of 1991. Dean never developed his equivalent to the “Friends of Bill” Rolodex; rather, most of his backers have been drawn to his campaign because they share his opposition to the Iraq war and buy his argument that Bush will only be beaten by a candidate who boldly challenges his agenda. Long before he emerged as the front-runner, Dean was courting not just big names like Al Gore, Bill Bradley and West Wing actor Martin Sheen but also party officials and activists around the country. Dean’s pitch was that he knows how to get the party out of the electoral rut it’s been in since the insiders who now seek an anti-Dean positioned the party too close to Bush on the war and other issues for the comfort of core Democrats.

So it was that in December alone, Dean was backed not just by Schakowsky but by sixteen other House members, including Democratic Caucus chair Bob Menendez, Black Caucus chair Elijah Cummings and the dean of House progressives, John Conyers. Dean also collected the endorsement of New Jersey Governor James McGreevey, as well as of thirty-one state legislators and fourteen county party chairs in that state. The same day, he was endorsed by Puerto Rico’s House representative, Anibal Acevedo Vila, chairman of the island’s Democratic organization.

To be fair, other campaigns have attracted prominent backers. Gephardt has the endorsements of more than twenty international unions, Kerry is backed by several other senators and Wesley Clark is backed by many prominent elected officials. But it is notable that in December three times as many members of Congress endorsed Dean as endorsed the other eight candidates combined. By the end of the year, he had more commitments from superdelegates–top elected officials and state party leaders who are guaranteed delegate slots–than any other candidate. And in addition to high-profile endorsements from the Service Employees and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, he also won the backing of muscular unions at the state and local level, like the California teachers and veteran activists like United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta.

But how can broad support in Puerto Rico or the enthusiasm of California teachers compare with the marquee events of New Hampshire or Iowa? Quite favorably, it turns out. While the other campaigns have been calculating how to spin second-, third- or even fourth-place finishes in Iowa or New Hampshire into excuses for carrying on to the February primaries, Dean’s campaign has been calculating how and where it will secure the backing of the 2,162 delegates needed to be nominated. In that calculus, it matters a great deal that Puerto Rico will send fifty-eight delegates to the July convention in Boston, two more than Iowa and thirty-one more than New Hampshire. And it certainly matters that, building on early support among gay and lesbian activists who got interested in him after he signed Vermont’s civil union law, Dean has developed a strong base in California, which will choose more delegates in its March 2 primary than will be selected in Iowa, New Hampshire and the eight succeeding primaries and caucuses.

Much has been made of Dean’s use of the Internet, but traditional politics may give him the edge. He has worked the phones, sat down for face-to-face meetings and restructured his schedule to win key endorsements. In August, while the other campaigns were virtually encamped in Iowa, New Hampshire and another early-primary state, South Carolina, Dean was jetting across the country on a “Sleepless Summer” tour that took him to delegate-rich states like Wisconsin, Washington, Oregon, Illinois and New York. The combination of the Internet and grassroots politics–you can now type in your ZIP code on the campaign’s website and get directions to the nearest Dean house meeting–creates a potent mix that opens the process to Democrats who are usually left on the sidelines. That, in turn, impresses Democratic officials. “From the start, the Dean campaign has been saying every state matters, and I’ve seen how that energizes the party base in places that aren’t usually organized this early in the process,” explained Minnesota State Senator Scott Dibble after signing on as one of five Dean co-chairs in that state. “While everyone else is talking about Iowa and New Hampshire, Dean is saying, ‘Look, I want to get things started in your state because your state is going to matter in the fight for the nomination and when it comes to beating Bush.'”

None of this means that Iowa and New Hampshire are irrelevant. These two states have become the boutiques of US politics. They provide candidates with narrowly defined and reasonably affordable storefronts in which to retail themes and tactics; they offer journalists easily comprehended contexts in which to observe contenders; and they winnow unwieldy fields down to manageable contests before the race finally plays out in the larger states. Iowa’s caucuses attract a relatively small contingent of party activists, who tend toward New Deal economics and are dubious about military adventures abroad; New Hampshire voters like mavericks, especially if they are New Englanders. Most of these factors bode well for Dean, as does the penchant of voters in both states for the sort of direct contact that Dean–who has visited all ninety-nine of Iowa’s counties–has lavished on them. Former Senator Gary Hart, who created the Iowa caucus phenomenon by focusing the 1972 campaign of George McGovern, which he was managing, on that state’s then-obscure early delegate-selection process, and who won a critical New Hampshire primary in 1984, says that any serious presidential candidate who “meets or beats expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire” gets a chance to go on to the primaries where most of the delegates are actually chosen.

Dean will likely achieve the “meet or beat” standard. But no one is quite sure who will go on with him. A Dean win in Iowa would leave Gephardt with few options, just as a victory in New Hampshire could hobble Kerry, his chief competitor there. Clark, who is not contending in Iowa, is putting a lot of energy into a late attempt to displace Kerry in New Hampshire. If Clark succeeds, he could be the anti-Dean. And with his stronger-than-expected fundraising and good poll numbers, Clark appears best positioned to assume that mantle. In all likelihood, however, the anti-Dean will not emerge fully formed before February 3, when Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, Oklahoma and South Carolina hold primaries and North Dakota and New Mexico have caucuses. North Carolina Senator John Edwards might limp to a victory in South Carolina, but it’s doubtful that a narrow win would be sufficient to restart his floundering campaign. Clark and Lieberman have both poured time and energy into Oklahoma and Arizona, but recent polls suggest Dean, who has the backing of former Governor David Walters and former Senator Fred Harris in Oklahoma, and of former Governor Bruce Babbitt and US Representative Raul Grijalva in Arizona, might win one or both of those states. Gephardt has made a play for North Dakota, but Dean has locked up the support of younger, more activist Democrats like State Senator April Fairfield, who has made a name for herself as a crusading defender of family farmers and now tells voters that Dean will carry the cause to the White House.

It is still conceivable that piling on by his opponents will take a toll on Dean sufficient to make him vulnerable, or that the Vermonter’s own inconsistencies will catch up with him. But if his foes are stymied at too many turns, the money will run out and Dean will start graciously accepting endorsements of the men who are now battering him. Even if an anti-Dean does emerge, that candidate will be battling in late-primary states like New York and California, where Dean looks to be strong. This does not necessarily mean, however, that Dean will finish the primary season without opposition. If a pattern has emerged in Democratic nominating contests of the past two decades, it is that after big-name, big-money challengers to the front-runner are knocked down, renegade candidates of the left have been able to soldier on to the convention. The Rev. Jesse Jackson did so in 1984 and 1988, as did Jerry Brown in 1992. Brown argues, from experience, that a candidate who can continue to run a low-budget campaign backed by a dedicated core of issue-driven supporters or a regional or ethnic base can stay in the running a lot longer than “the candidates who are addicted to spending a lot of money on television advertising.”

Thus, it could be that the last anti-Dean running will be the Rev. Al Sharpton or Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich. One recent South Carolina poll had Sharpton winning 12 percent of the vote and running in a virtual tie for second with Edwards and Clark. Similarly, if Kucinich can best one or more of the media-designated major contenders in Iowa or New Hampshire, or in the February 17 Wisconsin primary, where his supporters have been very active, he could keep in the running through the March 2 California primary, where he has substantial support in the Bay Area. Stronger-than-expected showings by Sharpton or Kucinich would keep the pressure on Dean, whose record in Vermont was far more centrist than leftist, to stay true to a progressive message.

If Dean’s fifty-state strategy gives him the delegate strength to obtain the nomination, it will still matter who the other delegates to the Democratic convention are pledged to support. If they are Democratic Leadership Council types elected on the slates of an anti-Dean contender backed by the party establishment, Dean will be under enormous pressure to neuter the progressive populist message that won him the enthusiastic support of elected officials and activists across the country–and that holds out the best hope for expanding the electorate in a November run against Bush. If, on the other hand, he feels a pull from the left–in the form of significant numbers of delegates who arrive pledged to Sharpton or Kucinich, then Dean might actually end up challenging Bush as the candidate he has promised to be: the nominee of the democratic wing of the Democratic Party.