Meet-up at the White House?

All of a sudden, the anti-war Howard Dean looks a serious candidate for US president

Flashmobs are the fad of the sum-mer. Groups of young people, prompted by the internet, gather at a particular time and place to perform some mundane and meaningless action. For months, the Democratic presidential campaign of the former Vermont governor Howard Dean has been dismissed as a political flashmob: a passing fad soon to be forgotten.

After all, went the conventional wisdom, Vermont is one of the smallest states in the US, so his political experience will carry no clout. In any case, ran the argument, this guy - an opponent of war in Iraq, the first governor to sign legislation for gay civil unions, a proponent of universal healthcare - is far too liberal to win the nomination, never mind the presidency. And rather like the flashmob, Dean has built support through a website, www.meetup.com, which up to now has been used by people with hobbies, such as breeding chihuahuas or performing yoga, who want to meet like-minded people. "It's like watching my 13-year-old daughter instant-messaging," sneered the campaign manager for a rival candidate. "It's not particularly about politics and policy. It's almost like a reality show."

Dean meet-ups have indeed become a campaign phenomenon. On the first Wednesday in August, 481 events took place on the same day in every US state, with nearly 80,000 people attending (the next most popular meet-up Democrat, John Kerry, has 8,000 members). At one of three separate meet-ups in the Boston area, Maggie, a doctor at a local hospital, confirmed that Dean's innovative use of the internet is part of his appeal.

"I am here as much because of the campaign as the candidate," she said, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the bar where the meet-up was held.

Brief rallying speeches by local state representatives and a rather wooden video message from Dean were followed by the main business of the evening: the assembled supporters, about 100 of them, mostly young, writing personal letters to New Hampshire voters about why they should support Dean.

The extent of Dean's grass-roots network is unprecedented for this stage of a Democratic primary campaign, still five months before the first real vote is cast in Iowa. His supporters enabled him to raise more money ($7.5m) from more people (59,000) than any other Democratic candidate in the second quarter of the year, with much of it coming from small, web-based donations.

Moreover, there are reasons to believe that Dean's appeal can extend beyond his current support base to a wider Democratic audience. First, he sounds angry - angry at the war on Iraq, angry about George Bush's tax cuts. This resonates with Democratic voters, who still resent the contested 2000 election result. Second, he is an outsider in Washington, anything but slick, with a slightly herky-jerky speaking style. For many, this adds to his appeal as an honest and unspun guy who says what he thinks. The perception that he is plain-speaking gives credibility to his policy agenda, centred around a promise to move towards universal healthcare for children and then adults, based on his record as governor of Vermont.

So far, so liberal - liberal enough, at any rate, to prompt the Democratic Leadership Council to attack him as a throwback to the more unsuccessful liberal Democratic candidates of the past.

Yet Dean defies conventional label- ling. He supports the death penalty. He opposes most further gun control, wanting the issue left to individual states. And he is a zealot for balanced budgets, which he delivered for 11 years in succession in Vermont. All this is precisely why the liberals at the Boston meet-up believe that Dean could win against President Bush - because, rather like Senator John McCain, who sought the Republican nomination in 2000, he can run as the straight-talking reformer who can't be typecast.

Yet the history of American politics is littered with people whose primary campaigns briefly surged and then fell away when they moved from media-charmed insurgent to scrutinised front-runner. If he is to avoid that fate, Dean has to meet three challenges.

He must show that his policies are robust, and so avoid the fate of Bill Bradley in 2000, whose plans for healthcare were taken to the cleaners by Al Gore. He must show that he is electable against Bush, particularly given that the action in Iraq enjoys majority public support and that his pledge to reverse all of Bush's tax cuts may leave him open to attack. Many are also asking whether a Democrat from Vermont, in the far north-east, can possibly appeal to the rest of the country, particularly the south. And it was clear from Democrats at the Dean meet-up that if he demonstrably cannot win, they may switch allegiance.

Finally, Dean has to hope that no other candidate can pick up momentum. Of these, John Kerry looks the best bet. He sounds far more presidential than Dean and has a war record to insulate him from charges of softness on national security. Kerry's challenge is to gain the enthusiasm as well as the respect of primary voters.

What is clear for now is that Dean has changed the shape and feel of this primary race. Democratic outsiders can win the nomination: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both of them state governors, pulled it off. Three months ago, people would have guffawed at such comparisons. Yet, all of a sudden, Dean looks like no joke.

Edward Miliband, on leave from HM Treasury, where he is special adviser to the Chancellor, is a visiting lecturer in government at Harvard University. miliband@fas.harvard.edu