Geek Chic

CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA -- For months, the Howard Dean campaign has run on the fuel of those on the fringe. His supporters defend their man in the manner of math-team members closing ranks around their captain as he faces off against the football squad. The fact that much of Dean's early support has come from outsiders, geeks and techies has been both its great strength (witness, for instance, the success of its Internet fundraising) and its putative Achilles heel (some have worried that the campaign is not mainstream enough). While the former governor's presidential bid has been widely praised for energizing the apolitical, no one is quite sure if Dean has enough broad appeal to win in November 2004.

On Tuesday, Dean's campaign added one of the most mainstream geeks in American politics to its ranks -- former Vice President Al Gore. The rally held here on Tuesday to celebrate Gore's endorsement of Dean attracted several hundred people to a downtown hotel, where Gore delivered an animated speech. But while Gore's oration was energetic, the actual content of his endorsement was less than ringing, focusing more on Dean's ability to galvanize voters than on whether voters should be galvanized by what the former Vermont governor advocates. Gore was, in essence, praising Dean's ability to do what he himself had failed to do four years ago: get people excited.

Dean was clearly ready to exploit both Gore's mainstream credentials and his Southern roots. The crowd, too, seemed ready to accept the help of a member of the Democratic establishment, responding to the pair's appearance on stage with an enormous cheer, and punctuating Dean's introductory speech with cries of approval for Gore.

"We're going to talk about what unites us," Dean said, reeling off a list of "divisive" issues that "they" -- the Republicans -- wanted to talk about, and saying that he would focus instead on topics such as education. The issues that concern southerners, Dean argued, are the same issues that matter to residents of New Hampshire and Iowa.

Gore, taking the podium, was greeted by a roar from the crowd. Referring to Dean familiarly as "Howard," he reminded the audience of his original statement that he would not be running himself. He prefaced his explanation of why he was endorsing Dean by clarifying that he would not be speaking against the other "great candidates." He wanted, he said, to convince people to unite behind the "real objective" -- winning the general election.

"Howard Dean and you have managed to do a better job of igniting support at the grassroots of America, and that's what we need," he said. "He has that connection."

Gore's speech had an oddly restrained quality. Given that the former vice president is famous for dwelling on the specifics of public policy, it was surprising to see Gore speak less about Dean's positions than about his ability to win the general election. To be sure, Gore did praise Dean for his firm stance against the Iraq War. But he focused most of his attention on hyping Dean's chances against George W. Bush and praising the former governor's style of campaigning; he argued that while some people think Dean speaks in an "off the cuff" manner, the former governor is, in reality, speaking "from the heart." Gore, often criticized for being too wooden, appears to see in Dean a quality that he himself did not possess as a candidate.

"'Howard Dean . . . well, you know,'" Gore said, imitating pundits and others who have said Dean is unelectable. Then he added, "I do know!" Those who think of Dean as too left-wing, Gore said, would do well to remember that Vermont voters often criticized Dean for being too conservative.

"We need to be passionate," Gore said, and the irony of the former vice-president repeating the advice that he had failed to take four years ago wasn't lost on the crowd of Dean supporters. Creating excitement and enthusiasm among new voters was "the thing that was lacking when Gore ran for president," said Dean supporter Robin Roseman, a retired biologist from the University of Iowa. She agreed with Gore's praise of Dean's ability to energize nonvoters. It's not just young people who are passionate about Dean, she said; older people who haven't participated in politics for a long time are excited by his candidacy as well.

Dave Tingwald, a secretary at the University of Iowa, predicted that in addition to finishing off the candidacy of Gore's former running mate, Joe Lieberman, the announcement would provide Dean with "added establishment legitimacy."

Dean's outsiders, it seems, are quite happy to be brought into the mainstream.

V.V. Ganeshananthan is a graduate student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a freelance journalist based in Iowa City.