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AFTER WISCONSIN

With decisions to make, Dean heads to Vt.

MADISON, Wis. -- Howard Dean lost his 17th consecutive nomination contest yesterday, but he left open the question of whether he would drop from the race for the Democratic nomination even as he sounded a battle cry to his supporters: "We -- are -- not -- done," he declared slowly and deliberately. Hours later, returning home to Burlington, Vt., he was greeted by campaign staffers who alternately cheered and cried as aides announced a 1 p.m. event today at which Dean was expected to outline his political future.

The pronouncements came after a third-place finish in a state he had recently described as a must-win for his campaign, and at the end of a day of other setbacks as well: A Vermont judge challenged his effort to seal papers from his 11 years as governor, and Dean's hometown paper called on him to quit the race following his string of losses.

Addressing a couple of hundred supporters in a hotel ballroom, Dean repeated five times, "We are not done," as he vowed to continue fighting for new ways to finance campaigns, a cooperative foreign policy, less intrusion on civil liberties, health insurance for all Americans, and more funding for and less federal interference in public schools.

"Let me thank you for your exceptional and extraordinary contribution," Dean told the audience before a member yelled out, "Thank you, Governor Dean." After saying thanks himself, Dean continued, "We together have only begun our work. People have said that we have begun to transform the Democratic Party. Some people even say we have, but the transformation that we have brought is a transformation of convenience and not of conviction, and we have to fight and fight and fight."

Seeking to buck up his supporters, many of them young people making their first foray into politics, he added: "The truth is that change is tough, and there is enormous institutional pressure in this country against change . . . and you have already started to change the Democratic Party, and we will not stop."

Dean headed back to Vermont immediately after his speech, arriving early this morning to an airport welcome by two dozen loyalists. ``It's a delight,'' he said, when asked how it felt to be home, ``although I have to say I enjoyed Wisconsin.'' Aides refused any details about this afternoon's event, but there were hints Dean might endorse one of the remaining candidates. The charter aircraft that brought Dean back to Vermont immediately returned to the Midwest, where its next passenger was scheduled to be John Edwards, who placed a surprisingly strong second in Wisconsin behind the nomination front-runner, John F. Kerry.

"After the hurrahs, the speeches, the debates, the media confrontations, Dean should exit gracefully from the presidential contest," read an editorial yesterday in the Burlington Free Press.

A loss in Wisconsin, after 16 straight defeats in earlier primaries and caucuses, would amount to a "convincing rejection of Howard Dean by the rank-and-file members of the Democratic Party, from coast to coast," the newspaper said.

Meanwhile, Superior Court Judge Alan W. Cook said neither Dean nor the secretary of state had authority to agree with a state archivist to a blanket seal covering 145 boxes of records from Dean's 11 years as governor. Dean released an additional 190 boxes of official documents after leaving office in January 2003, but his presidential rivals complained he was trying to conceal information relevant to his candidacy by sealing the other records, which Dean said may contain personal information. The judge said Dean and the state must identify and index the roughly 600,000 sealed documents and describe why each of them is protected by executive privilege.

An appeal of the ruling, made in response to a lawsuit filed by Judicial Watch, a conservative legal group, is likely.

Dean maintained throughout the day that he would not leave the race even if he lost the Wisconsin primary, which he once said was a do-or-die contest for his candidacy.

"First of all, our campaign's not in turmoil at all, and we're moving forward, and we're going to go to Super Tuesday and on beyond that," Dean said on NBC's "Today" show. "We have very strong field organizations. When I was the front-runner, we used a lot of the money that we had raised not just for early contests, but in anticipation of late contests. I think there needs to be a continued debate in the party about what we're doing."

Dean's top aides continued to investigate the possibility of forming a group that would advance the central themes of his campaign and also perhaps provide a counterweight to such groups as the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist organization whose leadership clashed with him during the campaign. Such an operation could be funded with Internet appeals such as those Dean used to raise a record $41 million last year.

Dean is also investigating what level of operation would allow his name to remain on upcoming primary and caucus ballots so he can continue to collect delegates to July's Democratic National Convention in Boston, according to one Democratic operative who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Dean told NBC, "We're getting a lot of advice from a lot of well-meaning people. We have 700,000 people on our Internet network; we're going to talk to them first. They've supported us through all of this. They have a lot at stake here. We're going to find a way to change the country. If I can't do it by being president, we'll find a different way to do it. But I think this rush to judgment about who the presidential nominee's going to be is not a good thing for the party, and it's not a good thing for the country."

Before leaving the Milwaukee for Madison, Dean headed to Glendale for the Sprecher Brewing Co., which makes beers, ales, and a gourmet rootbeer that has become a favorite of the teetotaling former governor. He smiled as owner Randy Sprecher pulled on a tap to draw a mug of fresh rootbeer, topped with a 2-inch head of foam, and downed the drink in six minutes before switching to cream soda. "Hopefully you can make it to the big Tuesday, which is monstrous number of delegate votes out there," Sprecher said to Dean, referring to the March 2 "Super Tuesday" contests in 10 states.

"We'll make it to the big Tuesday. Hopefully, we'll make it beyond the big Tuesday. That would be more fun," Dean said.

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

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