America - Andrew Stephen has doubts about Howard Dean

Dean's move from rank outsider to front-runner has been phenomenal. But his confidence can look like

I have my worries about Howard Dean. He was the first Democrat with the courage to tap into a virulently anti-Bush, anti-war vein that always ran through the country, but he is still not a man at ease with himself. His facial muscles remain tense when being questioned, he bristles with hubris when criticised, and he has a troublesome record of gaffes. Unlike other former gubernatorial insurgents such as Ronald Reagan in 1984 or Bill Clinton in 1992, 55-year-old Dean does not ooze affability towards an audience. He seems more like a hospital surgeon than the family GP he was, delivering his diagnosis with little apparent emotion before moving on stony-faced to the next patient.

Democratic voters, it seems, have similar doubts about Dean. A month ago, he was the clear front-runner to become their presidential candidate against Bush in November. Since then, the gap between him and his five serious rivals has narrowed - and in polls out last Tuesday he remained only five points ahead of his main rival in Iowa, 62-year-old Dick Gephardt. Dean lashed out at his rivals last Monday, saying he was tired of being a "pin cushion" for them. Sorry, but that is what politics is all about, Dr Dean. Governing little Vermont for 11 years was clearly not enough experience.

The first votes will be cast in the Iowa caucuses on 19 January. Democrats go to the polls in New Hampshire eight days later. There, the retired general Wesley Clark (who is not competing in Iowa) is racing up on the outside against Dean, and as I write is only two points behind him.

But does it matter at this stage? The system whereby Iowa and New Hampshire become apparently all-important is, I have to say, ridiculous. Iowa, though almost half the size of the UK, has only one-twentieth of the population (2.8 million). If more than 120,000 people vote this time, it will be a record. New Hampshire's population is just 1.2 million.

Much more important dates in the primaries are 3 February, when eight states, including Southern bell-wethers such as South Carolina, go to the polls, and 2 March, when the two most populous states, California and New York, vote along with nine others. Indeed, in only two rounds of caucuses in Iowa in recent history, Carter in 1976 and the first Bush in 2000, has the victor gone on to win the nomination.

Yet the enduring myth is that victory in Iowa is essential for later electoral success in the primaries. Dean himself has been to all 99 counties in the state and says it feels as though he has lived in Iowa for the past two years. For someone seen as a rank outsider only months ago, victory in Iowa would certainly lend traction to his bid. But if Clark then wins in New Hampshire, the buzz would probably transfer to the already glam former four-star general for subsequent primaries - and he may well then morph into the favourite.

Understand all that? With Clark and Senator Joe Lieberman skipping Iowa, the primaries this time around become especially complicated. With Dean stagnant in the polls, victory could conceivably still go to Clark, Senator John Kerry, Gephardt or Senator John Edwards (or even to Lieberman, despite problems with his campaign funding), all of whom are moving up the polls.

The system in Iowa is especially ludicrous. Its 99 counties are divided into 1,393 precincts, all of which meet at 6.30pm in freezing weather in church halls and the like (and even in people's houses) in places with names such as Sioux City, Waterloo and Davenport. Everyone attending is supposed to be a Democrat, but anybody can register as such at the door, even if they were until then registered as a Republican. They spend half an hour sorting themselves into "preference groups" (the preference being for one or other candidate) and then, if there are too many groups or if any of the groups has fewer than 30 people, they have another half-hour in which to sort themselves out again. The participants' preferences for the various candidates are next translated into proportions of their share of the 13,490 precinct-level delegates. These are phoned to the state party headquarters. When all the precinct results are gathered in, these are in turn translated into proportions of the 3,000 statewide delegates, who will vote at the final national party convention in Boston in July to choose the presidential candidate.

And if you find all of that difficult to comprehend, don't worry: Dean himself said he did not understand the Iowa caucus system until four years ago.

Unlike the primaries in most other states including New Hampshire, Iowa's system has some similarities to the way parliamentary candidates are selected in the UK: they are chosen at meetings of the party faithful where the voting is done out in the open, rather than in poll booths. The candidates wear out shoe leather speaking to tiny audiences in cafes, factories and farms. Voters feel insulted if they do not have a chance to see and probably meet each candidate in person.

And Iowa voters take their duties seriously: the state has an unusually literate workforce, with one of the best-educated populations in the country. In New Hampshire, 60 per cent of registered Democrats have college degrees.

The Dean camp has always believed that if the doctor can win in Iowa and New Hampshire, he has the nomination sewn up - which, as we have already seen, may or may not be true. Dean's transformation from rank outsider to front-runner has certainly been phenomenal: at the beginning of last year, he had seven paid staff, and $157,000 in his campaign coffers. Now he has 400 paid staff (plus zillions of volunteers) working all over the country on a budget of tens of millions, raised mainly through the internet. By being the first to excoriate George W Bush over the war in Iraq and daring to bring the issue into the open for the first time (the other major six being handicapped because they are legislative politicians who voted for the war), Dean energised a new and largely young power base.

In Iowa alone he has thousands of volunteers who have vowed to knock on hundreds of thousands of doors in the final week of campaigning in the state. His staff have brought in literally tonnes of granola bars, bottled water, mobile phones, torches and eight- and 15-seater buses. Gephardt may have the support of such organisations as the Iowa chapter of the United Auto Workers, and John Edwards, elected senator for North Carolina in only 1998 (and one to watch for the future if he doesn't zoom up this time), may have the endorsement of the Des Moines Register, the state's largest newspaper. But Dean has the valuable endorsements of Al Gore and of Iowa's favourite-son senator since 1984, Tom Harkin.

So it looks like Dean. Yet still I cannot entirely erase those doubts. What is attractive about him is the apparently ruthless confidence with which he makes pronouncements. It makes him seem like a tough leader more than able to take on Boy George and his cronies.

But when he makes a current or retrospective gaffe - Canadian television dug out from its archives an interview in which he said the Iowa caucuses were a waste of time, for example - that confidence looks merely like arrogance. It even suggests he has the tiniest of screws loose, though that is probably a quality to be found in all politicians. He finds it difficult to raise a politician's hypocritical but needed smile if he is being criticised, however: then he comes across simply as a man who cannot take criticism.

That is why - assuming he is the candidate - the Republicans believe he will be easy meat for them in this year's presidential elections. Their dirty-tricks department, I am told, has been building up a dossier of contradictions and gaffes in those self-confident pronouncements of his. And besides, they say, the leftish (by American standards) rhetoric that is mobilising a new Democratic base now is precisely what would turn off middle-ground voters in November.

A Bush v Dean contest would certainly be fun, enlivened by a debate between a man who has a high IQ but lacks the bedside common touch and a rival who is intellectually challenged but whose Texan proletarianism appeals, believe it or not, to many. The alternative to Dean, as things currently stand, would be Clark - but then I am convinced he has several screws loose.