LA CROSSE, Wis. -- Howard Dean closed out his do-or-die Wisconsin campaign yesterday with optimistic talk about winning today, a cool goodbye to his campaign chairman, and the promise of a speech tomorrow that will outline the future of his candidacy for the Democratic nomination.
He also acknowledged curtailing his criticism of the party's front-runner, Senator John F. Kerry, during a debate Sunday, but said the shift may have been as much about preserving his own image as it was about elevating his rival. Talks have begun between the campaigns about ways Dean and Kerry could work together should the former Vermont governor leave the race, according to a top Democratic operative who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"Clearly my behavior at debates is subject to strategic considerations," Dean said yesterday as he visited this western Wisconsin community for the second time in less than a week. "I don't plan to tip you all off to what the strategy is, but in the long term, it's not in anybody's interest to diminish whoever the Democratic nominee may be -- including myself."
He added: "There are three of us left in the race now who have any chance of beating George Bush and being the next president of the United States, and I have always said that I will not undermine the Democratic nominee. There are legitimate differences between Senator Kerry and myself, but those differences will be raised at a time of my choosing, not by moderators on national television."
Dean hopes to break a string of 16 consecutive election losses today, although he has trailed badly in recent polls. The state's largest newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, endorsed Senator John Edwards of North Carolina yesterday.
Dean has alternately declared that he will either end his campaign should he lose or forge ahead regardless of the results. At the same time, his campaign's chief executive officer, Roy Neel, is investigating establishing a political action group that could allow Dean to remain a political force if he drops out.
"That we'll talk about on Wednesday, after I've had time to consult with everybody, but I plan to win Wisconsin one way or the other," Dean said. "We've made enormous strides in the last few days, we're working very hard here, and I think it is possible for us to win, and I think it's possible for us to do well if we don't win."
Dean's campaign chairman, Steve Grossman, said in an interview Sunday that he would end his formal affiliation with the campaign should Dean lose today. Grossman said he would shift his allegiance to Kerry, whose 1996 Senate reelection race he headed, and would work to build bridges between Dean's legion of grass-roots supporters and Kerry's numerous establishment backers. Grossman also told several newspapers that Dean would halt his attacks on Kerry if, as the chairman expected, Dean lost in Wisconsin.
In his first comments on the topic, Dean said yesterday, "I have not talked to him since the newspaper article this morning, and my response is that I'll speak for the campaign." Several moments later, when a reporter raised the prospect of Grossman leaving the campaign tomorrow, Dean interrupted to say, "He's already left."
Grossman later said that he had not quit the campaign and that nobody had told him he was fired.
Dean also chafed at questions about whether and how he would continue his candidacy should he lose a 17th consecutive election. Kerry has won all but two of the contests, with Edwards winning one and Wesley K. Clark of Arkansas, who dropped out of the race last week, taking the other. Neither the Rev. Al Sharpton nor Ohio Representative Dennis J. Kucinich has won a primary or caucus.
"Let me remind you all that I have more delegates than everybody else in this race except John Kerry, so I think the campaign obituaries that some of you have been writing are a little misplaced," Dean said. "John Edwards said the other day, `This is a two-person race.' I would agree. It's a two-person race between me and John Kerry. And I have more delegates than John Edwards, I . . . might . . . add."
Dean began the day in Milwaukee, attending a breakfast meeting with Islamic activists. Later, he flew to La Crosse, Wausau, and Madison for rally speeches.
In La Crosse, he told a crowd of students at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse: "We need all of you to stay in no matter what, after the convention, after the election, to make sure we hold their feet to the fire. You know what they learned from us? They learned that when you stand up for what you believe in, without worrying about the polls, that is a much more powerful message than the folks who are giving that different message, to say whatever they think the electorate wants."
Glen Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.