MANCHESTER, N.H. — A few days before the New Hampshire primary, several campaign aides to former Vermont Governor Howard Dean took off precious hours to see The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. When the big battle scene arrives — the small band of Middle Earth heroes are about to confront millions of Orcs — Gimli, the lead Dwarf, observes, “Certainty of death, small chance of success. What are we waiting for?” It’s a tense, squeeze-the-armrest moment for the audience. Yet the Dean staffers — including then-campaign manager Joe Trippi — laughed out loud, drawing hostile glances and shhhhhs from others in the theater.

The Deaniacs were identifying. They knew they were about to run headlong into the forces of Senator John Kerry, the winner of Iowa, and conventional wisdom, which had been solidifying against Dean. After all, pundits and political ops — not just Jay Leno and David Letterman — had written off Dean after the Holler in Iowa. And the Dean team was right to take Gimli’s quip to heart. Kerry ended up beating Dean 39 percent to 26 percent in New Hampshire. And the other leading candidates finished far out of the money, with Senator John Edwards and retired General Wesley Clark each pulling 12 percent.

New Hampshire hardly settled matters for good. Dean’s finish was neither a repudiation nor a rebirth. But it did confirm the status of Dean’s warriors as underdogs who might need a fatalistic sense of humor and a guerrilla strategy to stay with the cause. And with a new round of across-the-country contests the following week — including in South Carolina and Oklahoma — Edwards and Clark also had reasons to hang on.

After becoming an international joke — one Dean aide reported the campaign had calculated that the average American media consumer saw the Dean Scream 20 times — Dean got back to basics in New Hampshire. Before adoring crowds — full of peaceniks, NPR listeners and students — he declared there were three reasons to back him: He has a strong record as a governor (balancing the budget, expanding health insurance coverage to most state residents); he is a straight-talker (such as when he says there’s no room in the federal budget for George W. Bush’s middle-class tax cut and other programs promised by Bush, as well as Democrats); and he is willing to take unpopular positions (opposing the war in Iraq; supporting civil unions for gay and lesbian couples).

Dean dropped the angry-man routine and presented himself as firm and steady — and married to a doctor with a nice smile. At a music store, he played the blues on a guitar. He joked about the shriek. (“I am so happy to be here, I could just scream.”) It never looked as if his head was about to explode. And his supporters were enthused as ever. While all the candidates had followed Dean’s lead in decrying special interests in Washington, only Dean treated his followers as more than voters. Kerry and Edwards told crowds they wanted to help them, to fight for them. Dean told his audiences he wanted to empower them. The slogan on his bus: “You Have the Power.” Without that pirate yell, Dean version 2.0 might have won the Granite State. But then, had he not been smacked by the double blow of a loss and international ridicule, Dean the Calm Populist might never have emerged.

To keep his lead in New Hampshire, Kerry played hockey with former Boston Bruins stars, and his campaign handed out thousands of copies of a 1998 issue of American Windsurfer that featured Kerry on the cover and photographs of him wearing a wetsuit and skipping over the waves. Kerry played by the numbers. He campaigned with Senator Ted Kennedy. He stuck to his familiar themes, calling himself the “Real Deal,” bashing away at Bush and indicting the president for, among other things, running the “most arrogant, inept, reckless and most ideological foreign policy.” A former Vietnam War hero, he boasted of his foreign-policy chops and was always surrounded by Nam war buddies. At a rally the night before Election Day, he stood before banners that read “Fighting for Us” and “The Courage To Do What’s Right” — blatant references to his military service. (Referring to the second of the two, one British correspondent remarked, “Did he forget his vote for the war?”)

But there was little pizzazz. And that’s always been the rap on Kerry: He’s weak on flash. On Election Day, Dean voters told reporters at the polls that Dean had inspired them. Kerry voters said they thought that he had the best experience, that he had the best chance against Bush.

With few policy differences among the four top contenders, the race was less about ideology and issues and mostly about impressions. Kerry the Victor of Iowa seemed most like a winner. And Democrats crazy to dethrone Bush craved a winner — or a reasonable facsimile. There were doubts about Dean, and neither Clark nor Edwards thrilled the voters. Campaigning in New Hampshire, Clark behaved like a candidate with no more than five months’ experience — which is all he has as a politician. He bobbled some key questions, kept explaining why he was a latecomer to the Democratic Party, and was a less-than-impressive orator (“family values are what it takes to have a family”). Of all the candidates, Edwards had the best stump performance. His stock speech — in which he eloquently described “two Americas”: one for the rich, one for the rest — was a superb piece of political rhetoric. He delivered it with grace and energy, as would be expected of a Grishamesque multimillionaire trial lawyer. He had the best gestures of the lot. He was the only candidate who glowed. Still, New Hampshire voters — who perhaps resented that he had not spent much time in their state, meeting with them personally and doing their dishes — handed him a disappointing verdict.

Kerry will now have to field the inevitable incoming attacks, and Dean’s people are hoping that he ends up looking more like a bleeder than a winner. If that happens, they believe, Democratic voters might take another look at the post-shriek Dean. Trippi says he and Dean are prepared for a long, ugly and nasty war of attrition with the Orcs — that is, the Kerry campaign, the media commentators (who will pronounce Dean washed up) and the Democratic Party establishment (which will pressure him to exit the race). But getting to that point will be an epic challenge in itself.

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