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Dean bid shows signs of ending

DURAND, Wis. -- He has been going through the motions this week, but Howard Dean's presidential campaign increasingly looks like it won't go on beyond Tuesday.

Though the former Vermont governor, who for months led polls in the race for the Democratic nomination, says he will continue campaigning regardless of the results of the Wisconsin primary -- which polls indicate he is likely to lose by a significant margin -- his actions are beginning to say otherwise.

His calendar for next week is not booked beyond Wednesday, when he plans to return home to Burlington, Vt.

His staff, some of whom are already planning to leave his headquarters for good on Wednesday, has not sought a new contract with the main air charter company that has been flying him around the country, aides say.

Dean himself said yesterday he does not know whether he will continue campaigning in a manner resembling the appearances that have filled his calendar for the past two years.

Asked about his upcoming schedule, he mocked his own raucous speech following his Jan. 19 third-place finish in Iowa, indicating how much his candidacy has changed both in tone and confidence since then. "We're going to California, and then we're going to Minnesota, and then we're going to go to New York," he said, chuckling and in a muted voice, as several listeners made a mock cheer of "Yeagghh." Dean used a similar but full-throated roar to punctuate his speech on caucus night, in which he predicted a political rebound.

Turning serious, he told a group of reporters who joined him on a dairy farm tour: "I'm going to go back to Burlington and kind of regroup and figure out how to tackle 10 of the biggest states in the country at the same time."

Yet moments later, when asked if he would remain an official candidate heading into the March 2 "Super Tuesday" voting in those 10 states, Dean said, "I don't know the answer to that question yet."

In response to a similar question, he replied, "We haven't had any discussions about that. We're not going to for a while. A lot of it depends on whether we win Wisconsin or not."

Earlier this week, Dean raised the prospect of continuing as the leader of a political movement instead of as a formal candidate for the Democratic nomination. His campaign website has more than 600,000 registered supporters, many of whom helped Dean raise a record $41 million last year.

While Dean has pinned his political hopes on Wisconsin, there was fresh evidence yesterday that he is not making much progress there after 14 consecutive losses.

A poll by the American Research Group of Manchester, N.H., showed the current front-runner, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, with support from 53 percent of people who said they definitely plan to vote Democratic in Wisconsin on Tuesday. Senator John Edwards of North Carolina was in second place at 16 percent, while Dean -- who has campaigned in the state for a week straight -- was third at 11 percent.

A week ago, a similar poll by the same group showed Kerry at 41 percent, Edwards at 11 percent, and Dean at 10 percent. The percentage of undecided voters fell during that time from 21 percent to 16 percent.

Another poll this week by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had results similar to the latest ARG survey.

Dean has continued to campaign in advance of the primary, speaking about agricultural issues yesterday here in western Wisconsin before hitting two Democratic hotbeds -- communities near Green Bay and metropolitan Milwaukee itself -- later in the day.

His campaign continues to raise money, including $90,000 Thursday night in Minneapolis, Dean's first traditional fund-raiser after months of Internet appeals. He will make a high-profile appearance tomorrow night at a Milwaukee debate among the remaining Democratic contenders.

Dean brushed off a question about his political legacy, win or lose, on Tuesday, declaring: "I think it's a little early to be writing postmortems yet. What I see as the contribution of this campaign is winning the presidency and changing the country."

At the same time, a sense of pessimism has begun to permeate the campaign. Aides who once bristled at jokes about Dean's downfall now take them in stride. There is open talk about vacation plans and the pros and cons of working on other campaigns. Only a skeletal staff remains in Burlington, and press inquiries come in at a trickle.

Dean himself can no longer enunciate exactly when, where, or how his campaign will continue, perhaps the biggest change for a candidate whose confidence had been a hallmark of his campaign.

Asked whether there was a risk of him being viewed as a sore loser should he continue campaigning after a loss next week, Dean said: "I think that's unlikely. There's an enormous amount of people who do want to continue. Now, whether it's enough to win the nomination or not, we'll have to see."

The farm visit was the first agricultural stop Dean has made since he campaigned amid the hog lots and cornfields of Iowa. Wearing a down parka, blue jeans, and hiking boots, he spoke about his home state's dairy tradition while the owner of the 260-acre farm, Don Anibas, showed him his herd of 50 Holsteins.

Dean spoke of trying to preserve such farms through a national dairy-pricing program and more widespread small business aid.

At one point, as the entourage swept past empty cattle stalls, Dean pointed to a deep gutter running the length of the barn -- a trench for manure runoff.

"Once when I was governor, I was on a dairy farm during campaign season," Dean recalled. "So as I was walking around the corner and wasn't looking what I was doing and -- Whoosh! -- and of course it was full."

Turning to his media entourage, whom he branded "city slickers," he said: "For those of you who don't know anything about dairy, this is a manure trench, and it's not good to step in it in loafers."

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com.

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