Milwaukee Even as he campaigns across Wisconsin, a conflicted Howard Dean is weighing how -- and whether -- to abandon his presidential campaign in the face of another likely defeat, senior campaign aides said Sunday night.
But don't be surprised if he keeps on campaigning.
The former Vermont governor is torn between recognition of his campaign's grave circumstances and the allegiance he feels toward supporters who have urged him to soldier on, several campaign insiders say. Dean initially said Wisconsin would be a do-or-die test for his candidacy, but more recently he insisted that he would keep his options open, even if he loses as badly as opinion polls suggest.
Surveys have shown Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the national Democratic front-runner, with a commanding lead in Wisconsin, and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina vying strongly for a second-place finish ahead of Dean.
Advisers said Sunday that there is near unanimity among campaign strategists that Dean should drop out if he fails to manage a surprise victory Tuesday.
Summing up their sentiment, one said, "We got in this to win, and we're not going to win." But that aide and others said the governor has not yet come to that conclusion and continues to mull whether he can still campaign in some form -- even if it consists of nothing more than making a handful of appearances in the states that vote March 2. Among them are giants California, New York and Ohio.
"I'm not sure he even knows how he's going to do it, if he does do it," a top strategist said.
Advisers who favor Dean's exit from the race said they were loath to push the candidate too hard since, as one of them put it, "He'd probably just do the opposite."
Another top strategist said of Dean, "He feels like both for his supporters and himself he has a commitment to hang in there a little big longer. He's not naive about the situation. ... But he says, 'I've gone this far. Maybe I should let my voice be heard another two weeks."'
Dean has repeatedly changed his public stance about his plans, first sending an e-mail to supporters stating that a loss in Wisconsin would "put us out of this race." Then he told reporters last week that he would continue campaigning, whatever the results Tuesday.
A senior aide said Sunday night that Dean has been "going back and forth daily" on whether to stay in the contest. But he said the candidate may decide to drop out if Tuesday's results are particularly discouraging.
Fresh speculation about Dean's intentions was fueled earlier in the day when the national chairman of his campaign, Steve Grossman, told the Associated Press that he thought Dean had accepted the inevitability of Kerry's victory and was all but resigned to quitting the race after Tuesday night.
But Dean adamantly denied that an hour later.
"We're in, no matter what," he told Wisconsin Public Television.
Dean blamed the "confusion" on "people writing the stories that don't know what they're talking about. We're not dropping out after Tuesday. Period."
The turmoil reflected how both Dean and his aides are agonizing over what could be the death throes of his once white-hot campaign.
His staffers "are all giving him space," said one of his longest-serving strategists. "We're going to let Howard Dean make this decision." For now, Dean has no campaign events planned after Tuesday appearances in Wisconsin. He is scheduled to fly home to Burlington, Vt., that night, where, he told reporters, he wanted to "regroup."