WOLFEBORO, N.H. -- Most of the sign holders along North Main Street have not seen their 30th birthdays. Most of the seat warmers inside are nostalgic for 50. But there is no apparent generation gap in the crowd that turns out to hear Howard Dean on a recent brisk late afternoon.
A room meant to hold 300 fills with nearly twice that number. They sit cross-legged in the aisles, lean two-deep against the walls. A few sport Dean buttons, but most wear the expression of hope and doubt that is the mark of an undecided presidential primary voter.
At 3:45 p.m., running a half hour late, Dean is making his fourth and penultimate stop of the day. If he is tired when he emerges from the green SUV outside the Wolfeboro Inn, he is reenergized by the reception inside. Some of these folks last saw him on Memorial Day weekend, when the former governor of Vermont was being dismissed as a long shot for the Democratic nomination.
A lot has changed since spring.
His remarks vary little from a speech earlier in a high school cafeteria in Merrimack or from one he delivers two hours later at a high school gym in Laconia. The invasion of Iraq was built on deception. The nation is hemorrhaging jobs. There was no middle-class tax cut. There will be no real health care reform until people are placed before profits.
What, after so many repetitions, could be a tired stump speech is, instead, a call to action. Dean strikes the most responsive chord when he insists that his campaign is not just about him; it is about the retirees, the students, the seasonal workers, and the unemployed in his audience. Donors who write small checks. House party hosts newly active in politics. Registered voters who might actually vote this time around. Ralph Nader voters who are ready to move beyond protest and symbolism.
It is an informed audience, open but not naive. There is the retired doctor who asks his fellow physician to describe his process of decision-making; the doubter who agrees that the attack on Iraq was a mistake, but wants to know how Dean would get us out; the conservationist who wants to know how a man who arrived in an SUV will wean the country from its dependence on foreign oil.
He makes the decisions, Dean says, but takes the advice that qualified people give him. He would internationalize forces in Iraq, pressuring Arab allies to send troops. He would encourage development of renewable energy sources and the production of hybrid automobiles that use ethanol as well as gasoline.
More than a dozen people respond when Dean asks for a show of hands from teachers. They respond with an ovation when he mocks President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act as "no behind left." Why, he asks, do we fail to fully fund early childhood education only to pay later to incarcerate felons who most kindergarten teachers could have identified as being at risk at age 5?
What about the criticism that Dean's temperament is too volatile for the Oval Office? Well, the candidate concedes, he is sometimes short with the press. The smirking admission elicits sustained laughter, as much a measure of the media's standing in the polls as the candidate's.
According to the US Census Bureau, 32 percent of Americans between 18 and 24 voted in 2000, compared with 68 percent of those over 65. Riding motorcycles on to late night talk shows or donning turtlenecks for "Rock the Vote" debates will not close that gap. Jobs are not just a concern of the young, any more than Social Security is just a concern of the aged, Dean says.
"This campaign is about community, about all of us," he tells the crowd that sends him on to the next stop with a standing ovation. Dozens, old and young, stay behind to sign up to help the cause of former long shot, Howard Dean.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.