Experienced politicians and reporters here were bemused by Deanites, wearing their trademark orange stocking caps, roaming the streets of Des Moines and other Iowa cities. These excited activists were misinterpreted as the vanguard of a political revolution. Buying into the erroneous theory that polls were valueless in this caucus state, the experts underestimated the impact of Dean's accumulated gaffes.
Of all Dean's bizarre comments, his opponents felt the most damaging was his statement that mass killer Osama bin Laden deserves a fair trial. While the war in Iraq fueled the Dean phenomenon, its limitations as his overriding campaign issue were reflected in Iowa's entrance polls. Caucus-goers disapproved of the war by 3 to 1, and those that considered it the top issue strongly backed Dean. But they comprised only 14 percent of all voters.
Dean's liabilities against George W. Bush were demonstrated Monday, just before and after the caucuses. He railed at the heavy presence of the news media, claiming it threatened his scheduled appearance at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in Des Moines and then canceling the date. His post-caucus speech to supporters in which he ripped off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and launched a prolonged rant ("We will not give up!") had experienced Democratic politicians shaking their heads.
Iowa delivered a devastating blow to Howard Dean and may have saved its caucuses. Before Monday's results, both national and state political leaders privately predicted that 2004 would be the last year that this state kicked off the Democratic presidential selection process. That death sentence would have been confirmed if the quirky caucus process had sustained the Dean phenomenon. Instead, Iowa now looks like as good a place as any to begin presidential competition.