There were no tears visible at Howard Dean's election night party Tuesday night, but there weren't many smiles either - an appropriate reaction for "good enough."
There wasn't even much noise: at one point some Dean staffers had to try to whoop up the crowd - until the candidate himself appeared. Then, the gymnasium at Southern New Hampshire State University filled with a sound blending scream and roar: Fists pumped, feet pounded, and Dean tried unsuccessfully to start his speech several times.
When he did begin, he said: "We're really going to win this nomination, aren't we?"
The answer to that question was really no clearer Tuesday night that it had been the night before. With a second-place finish and a quarter of the votes, Dean had avoided disaster but missed scoring an upset. As the former Vermont governor himself put it: "We did what we needed to do tonight."
Mary Welch had done what she needed to do, too. She headed the Dean push in Republican-leaning Alton, N.H., and had hoped to get 150 votes for Dean there. The final tally was 185.
"He got back to the basics. He got back to the fundamental issues that made him so popular in the first place," Mary Welch said, explaining Dean's recovery. "The realness of Howard Dean…really started to come through again."
The only problem was that while Dean's 185 votes exceeded expectations in Alton, Kerry's 213 votes won the town. That unavoidable fact - that Dean did not win - was subject to differing spins by Dean's backers.
Debbie Butler, the woman who introduced Dean, saw visions of Bill Clinton's "comeback kid" performance 12 years ago.
"Can anybody remember 1992, when New Hampshire gave first place to a Massachusetts senator and second place to a governor from a small state?" she asked, referring to the late Sen. Paul Tsongas victory over Mr. Clinton. "It looks like we've done it again."
Dorie Clark, Dean's New Hampshire spokeswoman, said Dean had "come into New Hampshire as the underdog" but avoided the parallel with Mr. Clinton.
"We feel that we've learned that our campaign is moving in the right direction. Iowa knocked us off course a little bit. We've been able to regain our footing," Clark said. "This appears to be a second place finish that's very solid. We feel that that's a success for us."
Clark said Dean was heading to South Carolina on Thursday and, after that, to the West and Midwest ahead of the Feb.3 primaries. She says Dean is looking for a win in all seven states holding votes next Tuesday, and pointed to the money and Dean's supporters in all 50 states as reasons the campaign will be sustained.
"Gov. Dean is at his best when we're able to get our message out," she added.
The media's role in allegedly obscuring Dean's message was a favorite target of Dean's backers. Bob Welch, a New Hampshire resident, said Dean "made some mistakes" in Iowa that were seized on by the mainstream media because "a candidate who represents a big change from the status quo is a threat."
"It was eerily reminiscent of four years ago where the media built up John McCain and then tore him down," said Stacey Beck, of Washington, D.C. "I think that was tremendously difficult for the campaign to overcome."
"They've been playing Kerry as more electable than Dean and so their conclusions are going to be that he is," Nancy Hanger of Auburn, N.H. said of the chattering classes. "It's a self-fulfilling prophecy."
When he had the floor Tuesday night, Dean stuck to that message: pledges to provide health care, create jobs, support renewable energy and restore the United States' "moral leadership" with "a foreign policy based on cooperation, not confrontation."
"The people of New Hampshire have allowed out campaign to regain its momentum," Dean told the crowd. "Stand with us to the very end, which is Jan. 20, 2005."
Paul Barresi, a Southern New Hampshire U. political science professor, said the entire Democratic field was likely to remain intact at least through the next round. Dean, he believes, will stick around even longer.
"He has more money than any of the other Democratic candidates and a core group of very committed supporters, and I think that he's in it for the long haul," Barresi said.
Many of those core supporters were on hand Tuesday night.
"I think he had a very tough week," Rebecca Hutchison shrugged, noting: "A week ago everybody thought Dean was dead."
Barbara Matthews thinks Dean is still alive because "he has the best message" and "he is the most refreshing, honest and interesting candidate and I think he has the best chance to beat George Bush."
But some less-zealous backers were also there.
"Frankly, I'm a little disappointed," said Tom Buyer, a Somerville, Mass., resident.
Jenny Felsen, a UC-Berkley student who worked on the Dean campaign in New Hampshire for a week as part of a research project, indicated Dean's fortunes might depend on …: Dean's fortunes.
Down the road, Felsen said, "If he's still a viable candidate then I'll be a supporter."
As of Tuesday night, Dean still is. But Dean's supporters seemed to agree that he must demonstrate in the not-too-distant future that he can win. They are quietly confident he can.
"I feel very fortunate I'm in this crowd," said Jane Beaulieu, a volunteer. "This is reality. This is reality."
By Jarrett Murphy