To look at Howard Dean, frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for president, you wunta thought of him as potential leader of the free world. The Vermont doctor-turned-governor, physically at least, more closely represents the small-town hockey dad he is than a finely polished politician.
To listen to Howard Dean, fundraising leader among Democratic candidates, you wunta thought Democratic bigwigs like Al Gore would come to endorse him. The self-proclaimed representative of the Democratic wing of Democratic Party rails almost as much against his own party as he does the current administration. "I am going to tell the truth because we need new leadership in the Democratic party," Dean recently said in Manchester, N.H., while defending himself against criticism from his Democratic rivals for his remarks claiming Saddam Hussein's capture did not make America any safer.
The wunta factor is a key component to the Dean campaign's good fortune. To hear campaign manager Joe Trippi tell it, part of Dean's success in the primary polls comes from his opponents underestimating the once little-known governor of a small New England state. But Howard Dean doesn't want just to win the primary; he wants to be president.
So lately, changes have found their way to the Dean campaign and to Howard Dean himself; changes designed to allow him to move beyond an incredible grassroots network of supporters and into a position with broad appeal to the overall electorate. Some of the changes are subtle and some are blatant but this candidate is slowly evolving into a prime-time player.
In recent days, two "major" policy addresses, provided Dean with a forum to appear presidential. In Los Angeles, he delivered a foreign policy speech to the Pacific Council in which he outlined broad themes for combating the threat of global terror and building new alliances with traditional U.S. allies. Then Dean gave a speech in New Hampshire outlining domestic policies focusing on health care, childcare, higher education and retirement. Part of the intention of the speeches was to give Dean an opportunity to move beyond the populist rhetoric he delivers on the stump.
On a recent flight aboard his campaign charter, Dean explained his shift to reporters: "I know that I have to both appeal to the Democrats to win the primary, but I also have to now start appealing to a broad base of America in order to beat George Bush. Because that is, after all, the object, the goal of all of this: to send Bush back to Texas."
But look more closely at Howard Dean; look beyond the press releases announcing new policies and major addresses. Look, for example, at Howard Dean's neck. Campaign staffers used to just roll their eyes at Dean's appearance – the shabby suits, the socks slumped around the ankles and the shirts (oh the shirts!) about half-an-inch too tight around the collar. But aides had long since given up on image consulting. The word among staffers was that Dean didn't want any image or media consultants even approaching him.
But whether it was simply an issue of comfort or succumbing to remarks about how unflattering the skin of his neck bulging over his shirt collars appeared, Dean confirmed that he now wears new shirts "with bigger collars." And he looks better for it, especially on those all-important remote interviews.
Aides used to cringe especially hard during remotes. These are the frequently awkward, often technologically challenged interviews seen largely on the cable news networks and network morning news shows. The interviewer is in the studio and the subject is somewhere else. They hear each other through earpieces and while the interviewer can usually see the subject on a monitor, the subject cannot see the person asking the questions. For the sake of television, the subject is supposed to look straight into a camera lens as though it were a person, a very hard skill to master.
Dean used to do remotes looking about as comfortable as a teenager who just switched to a new high school. He sat straight up and back, hardly moving a muscle, giving himself a sort of robot-like image.
Now, Dean staffers make sure a table is in front of the governor during remote interviews. The table makes Dean more inclined to lean toward the camera, providing an impression of familiarity with the cold blank lens staring at him. As governor of Vermont, Dean had little call for remotes. "Now, as he's done more, I think he's gotten better," said longtime aide and traveling companion Kate O'Connor.
Another senior aide notes that Dean's public speaking skills have improved after nearly two years on the road. At a fundraiser in Chicago earlier this month, Dean demonstrated his command over a live audience by hitting his punch lines and feeding off the vibe of the crowd. But the true test of a candidate's speaking skills on the stump comes when he has to adapt to the unexpected. And during this early-December Chicago fundraiser, Dean was tested by a voice rising from the back of the room. A local television reporter started speaking into his microphone just as the candidate was lowering his voice for a transition in the speech.
The crowd, there to hear Dean and not a reporter, began to shush, first softly and then loudly. The shushes quickly grew loud enough that Dean could no longer continue as if he hadn't noticed them.
"He's on live," Dean told the crowd, coming to the reporter's rescue. The reporter pointed out that he was, in fact, getting television time for the crowd's candidate of choice, so hey, cut him a break. And Dean played it up, turning what could have been an embarrassing moment into a crowd-pleasing bit. He showed a shrewd sense of timing, spontaneously sparring with the crowd for about half a minute before returning to the regular greatest hits module of his stump speech. (Have you heard the one about a one-way bus ticket back to Crawford, Texas?)
In addition to the candidate himself, the tone of the campaign's traveling road show has also changed. Back in November, Dean proudly announced on board a charter flight from New Hampshire to Maine that everything said on the plane was on the record unless otherwise indicated. Now, campaign staff is careful to point out that everything said aboard the governor's plane in flight is off the record unless otherwise indicated.
There are new members of the Dean entourage, too. Doug Thornell, who had been working for the Congressional Black Caucus, came on board a few weeks ago as traveling press secretary despite his aversion to flying. Gina Glantz, once Bill Bradley's national campaign manager and more recently a top adviser to Andy Stern at the giant labor union SEIU, is now on the road with Dean as a traveling senior adviser.
As the Dean campaign – now with more than two-dozen endorsements from members of Congress, the much touted nod from former Vice President Al Gore and a growing list of highly respected policy advisers – grows in size and stature, so does the candidate in style and savvy.
No one doubted that Dean, regarded as a blunt-speaking, somewhat stubborn insurgent candidate, would have to become more politic as his chances for the nomination grew, but he'll have to dance along a fine line in order to broaden his appeal without seeming like he is pandering. Dean has energized a large section of the Democratic Party's base with the very anti-politician image he is beginning to shed. His challenge now will be to incorporate more conventional support without alienating the diehards who propelled him to the front of the pack.