In the wake of a disappointing double-defeat in Iowa and New Hampshire, the former Vermont governor has ousted Joe Trippi, his popular campaign manager, and suspended paychecks for his staff for two weeks to cope with a serious cash shortage ahead of a crucial 7-state primary next Tuesday.
Trippi is being replaced by Roy Neel, a veteran aide of Vice President Al Gore. The paycheck suspension signaled Dean's financial problems. He spent heavily on TV advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire, but he is now the only candidate who is not on the air in at least one of the seven states holding primary elections or caucuses.
"I think you are going to see a leaner, meaner organization," Dean said. "We had geared up for what we thought would be a front-runner's campaign. It's not going to be a front-runner's campaign. It's going to be a long, long war of attrition."
It was a stunning turnaround for former front-runner Dean, who seemed unstoppable only months ago, when he rode high in the polls and easily outpaced his rivals in campaign contributions.
Now Dean badly needs a primary victory to maintain a credible candidacy.
"Success in the next 10 days is absolutely essential," said Dean's campaign chairman, Steve Grossman.
Dean will have the opportunity to make up ground tonight, when the seven Democratic candidates meet for a debate in Greenville, S.C., one of three key primary states. The others are Missouri and Arizona. Oklahoma, New Mexico, Delaware and North Dakota are also holding contests. A combined total of 269 delegates are at stake.
The front-runner in the race, Sen. John Kerry, hopes to capture delegate-rich Missouri and South Carolina.
"We're going in strong," the candidate said Wednesday, a day after his New Hampshire win. He collected some big-name endorsements in St. Louis before flying to South Carolina, where he was getting another tap on the shoulder from Rep. Jim Clyburn, the top black Democrat in the state.
Blacks make up about 30 percent of South Carolina's population, and may represent up to half of those who vote next Tuesday.
Kerry also is courting the military veterans' vote in South Carolina, but he likely will get competition for that from retired Gen. Wesley Clark, as well as from Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
Like Dean, Edwards, Clark and Sen. Joseph Lieberman need to rack up at least one victory on Tuesday to maintain a viable candidacy, and to prevent Kerry from running away with the nomination.
Edwards was also in Missouri, where he courted former supporters of Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., whose withdrawal from the presidential race last week turned Missouri into a wide-open contest.
With rock-and-roll pioneer Chuck Berry in the audience, Edwards late Wednesday told a packed audience at a St. Louis restaurant and tavern, Blueberry Hill, that Gephardt was "one of the greatest people I know."
Edwards was hosting a private fund-raising session in St Louis before flying to North Carolina to participate in the debate.
The race in Arizona, meanwhile, remains close but Kerry's victory in New Hampshire gives the front-runner an edge over Howard Dean and Wesley Clark, political analysts said.
Kerry stands the best chance of winning the Arizona primary, leaving a tight race for second place between Dean and Clark, said Bruce Merrill, an Arizona State University professor and pollster.
Clark and Lieberman are hoping for victory in Oklahoma, where both men campaigned on Wednesday.
"I can't tell you how glad I am to be back in my neighborhood," Clark, who grew up in Arkansas, told a crowd at Oklahoma State University's Tulsa campus.
Supporters chanted "Go Clark Go!" and cheered wildly when he proclaimed, "I'm not a professional politician." Many in the crowd were veterans who stood to be recognized at the request of the retired Army general and NATO supreme allied commander.
Lieberman, who finished fifth in New Hampshire, bashed President Bush at a health-care forum at the University of Central Oklahoma. He faulted the president for what he said was inaction in improving the nation's health care policy.
"Our government has failed to secure the right of the people to health care," Lieberman said. "And it is an outrage."
The former vice presidential candidate said Oklahoma, as well as Delaware, Arizona and South Carolina, are key to his effort to attract mainstream Democrats to his cause.