The Democrat, who broke party records for a presidential candidate by raising $41 million last year, abandoned his bid last week after failing to win a single state. Back in Vermont, the former governor sent an e-mail appealing for cash to pay his campaign bills.
"Most of these expenses are small businessmen, printers who created brochures, yard signs and stationery, family restaurants who provided gallons of coffee and thousands of doughnuts for volunteers, and local merchants who provided buses, microphones and staging equipment," Dean wrote.
"When these things were ordered, we thought we could win key early contests and use the momentum to secure more victories in other states," he said.
Dean's plea reflected how quickly his fortunes changed — politically and financially — in the presidential race.
The former front-runner set a Democratic fund-raising record in 2003, due in large part to a faithful core of small-dollar donors who gave through the Internet. Many made monthly donations or gave repeatedly in response to Web-a-thons by the Dean team.
The candidate was so confident the money would continue to flow that he became the first Democrat to skip public financing and rely solely on his own fund-raising ability to finance his campaign.
That confidence also carried through to his spending decisions. Flush with money, the campaign aired expensive ads early on and established a costly nationwide ground game. By the end of 2003 — before the primary contests even started — Dean had spent nearly every dollar he had taken in.
Dean's fund raising remained strong in January — he raised about $6.2 million — but he lost in every delegate contest held and started to see his money momentum fade as it increased for the new front-runner — John Kerry.
"Can you help by making a small contribution today?" Dean asked in his Tuesday e-mail. "I won't suggest a specific amount: $250, $100 or even $50 would be appreciated. ... This debt is of huge concern to me. I need the help of good friends like you now."
Dean said he wants to retire the debt quickly so he can move forward with an organization he plans to start "to affect change at all levels of our political process," in a form still be determined. Democrats, meanwhile, are eager to find a way to translate Dean's Internet fund raising into a moneymaker for the party.
The Dean campaign's financial situation is most remarkable because of the record amount he raised, but every Democratic presidential hopeful has been cutting it close on cash, and several former candidates began this month with substantial bills to pay.
Among them, Wesley Clark reported about $3.4 million in campaign bills to pay as February began, with only about $400,000 in the bank. Clark did accept public financing and will be helped by about $1.8 million from the program when the next monthly checks go out Monday.