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Edwardsians on the road in New Hampshire

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Oh, fickle politics. Wasn't it just last week that some people around here were awarding the Democratic presidential nomination to Howard Dean? And joshing John Edwards for giving up his Senate seat for a quixotic run at the White House? (Hey, really, just joshing! Sir.)

Post-Iowa, the Deaniacs were down, and Edwards-ians like Raleigh's Gail Perry were up, up, up in New Hampshire.

"How passionate am I about John Edwards' candidacy?" Perry said in a pre-primary email. "Willing to brave minus-6 degree weather. Willing to haul my 70-something mother up here."

A consultant to nonprofit organizations, Perry and her mom jetted to Manchester last week with Perry's friend Joyce Fitzpatrick and Fitzpatrick's 14-year old daughter, "three generations of Southern women determined to sway those stoic New Englanders to support our Johnny."

Their mission? "High-impact, high-visibility presence in key seacoat towns," as their team leader told the Carolina volunteers on an especially drab Sunday. 4,000 phone calls, 4,000 doors knocked upon, 200 signs. "No Southern wusses today--we need high energy out there no matter how cold it is!"

According to Perry, doubting Deaniacs were a prime target. "I... I was for Dean, but now I don't know," her hotel clerk whispered to her the morning she arrived. "Tell me about Edwards." A trucululent Irishman, committed to Dean, called Edwards "a bomber."

"Dean?" Fitzpatrick shot back. "He's already bombed."

Conversely, Edwards people were feeling, as one told her, like they're "in the early stages of something very important," and bantering with John Kerry's people about who should be first on a John-John ticket.

Their John was on, Perry says. At a town hall meeting in Nashua, Edwards spoke about "an America where everyone is lifted up, not dragged down. I see an America where opportunity is not limited to those with a certain skin color or certain families. Together, we change America."

Wow, Perry thought. He sounds like John Kennedy.

Deaniacs, conversely, fought to keep the faith after their man finished so poorly in Iowa and--was that a scream?

"It was a little goofy, something I'd never seen before," says Stephanie Carter, who lives in Raleigh now but for four years ('94-'98) was Gov. Dean's press secretary in Vermont. "But you can totally see what he was trying to do."

Carter, communications director at the Center for International Understanding, an arm of the UNC system, thinks the world of Dean. "He's one of the most decent and respectful people I've ever worked with," she says.

So, the night of the Iowa caucuses, Dean was in a room with a couple thousand 20- and 30-something Deaniacs who'd come in from all the country and were already revved sky-high. They were shouting, and Dean had to shout to be heard over them. "He was trying to rise to their enthusiasm, tell them not to give up, tell them this isn't the last election, it's the first," Carter says. "It's been very hard to watch it become a national joke."

Carter was bemused, then, to watch Howard and Judy Dean discussing things with ABC Diane Sawyer. It was an example, she thinks, of a national media corps "that wants the rise and fall so badly," pitted against two serious people who kept waiting to be asked a question about something important.

Howard Dean, Carter says, held weekly press conferences in Vermont that were shown live on cable television. He was sharp, quick-witted, and answered questions without pretense, telling reporters what he thought in a way that made him hugely popular throughout the state. What he didn't do was answer by rote. "There's nothing rote about Howard Dean," she says.

Rote answers--the exact same words said again and again, regardless of the question--are serving Kerry and Edwards well with the national press, she thinks, while Dean and Wesley Clark are penalized for talking like real human beings--accused of "changing positions" if their phrasing changes.

But Carter thinks New Hampshire voters understand Dean even if the media doesn't, and she predicted "an extremely strong showing" there Tuesday.

Whatever the outcome was, Carter says Dean's core supporters are with him to the end, knowing that his campaign--their campaign--breathed life into the Democratic party back when candidates like Kerry and Edwards were dead in the water for fear of criticizing President Bush.

"After all he's done for the Democratic Party, getting people excited about it, and young people excited, if 'the scream' becomes his Muskie moment," Carter says, recalling former Maine Sen. Ed Muskie's misty-eyed collapse in the '72 campaign, "It will just be such an unfair shame." l

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