For most of 2003, Howard Dean's campaign showed some of the qualities of a Silicon Valley enterprise in the boom days of the 1990s -- an innovative political machine that was all about the promise of something new -- new voters, new money and a new politics for a demoralized Democratic Party.
But on the eve of the first critical votes of 2004, Dean's campaign is showing obvious signs of nervousness. His campaign is now less about cyber-innovation and more about delivering support from Democratic voters, and the question that will be answered in the days ahead is whether Dean has built his campaign on a solid foundation or one that will fracture if there is a setback or defeat.
Those shifts in sentiment are not unexpected, but some past front-runners -- George W. Bush in 2000, for example -- have braced themselves with establishment political support to sustain them through the rapids of the early contests on the nomination calendar. Dean, for all his endorsements from powerful unions and prominent Democrats such as former vice president Al Gore and Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa), remains a candidate dependent on a grass-roots army that is untested in the rigors of primaries and caucuses and unpredictable if things go badly.
Dean advisers dismiss talk that Dean has stalled or is in any real trouble, while acknowledging that they have lost ground in New Hampshire and are fighting for a victory in Iowa. "We've got a tough fight in Iowa and New Hampshire, and it's going to be a tough fight beyond that," said Dean pollster Paul Maslin. "What's going to sustain us beyond that is what Howard Dean has built. That is going to be our shield."
Dean's closing argument heading toward the first contests is that he alone has built a campaign that can beat Bush and the Republicans, one that can attract new voters and enough money to run competitively against the best-funded incumbent in history.
His rivals point not to his campaign -- they have obvious respect for what he has built -- but to the candidate himself, and they question whether he has the personal qualities, temperament and vision to lead the party in November. His performance in the days ahead, and the intensity of those who have powered his rise in the Democratic race, will answer the questions his rivals are posing.