Media screw a social democrat

Observations on the New Hampshire primary

Americans wear their allegiances on their bumpers, and along New Hampshire's Interstate 93 - the main route through this wintry slither of pine forests and frozen rivers - one bumper sticker rivalled those for the Super Bowl-bound Patriots. "Dated Dean, married Kerry" is the slogan that sums up Howard Dean's plunge from Democrat front runner to electoral also-ran. In Tuesday's primary, he came a distant second with 26 per cent to John Kerry's 39 per cent.

The positive, progressive message of Dean's campaign was buried by the "electability" issue. More than anything he said in New Hampshire, what dominated the final week of campaigning was the infamous howl after his defeat in Iowa. "This thing has permeated pop culture," the Washington Post commentator Howard Kurtz told a CNN panel that asked whether TV had over-exposed Dean's scream. Yet CNN itself replayed the clip 673 times, as Dean observed in an interview with the station.

"That was all just stupidity," said Gordon Ouellette, a Dean supporter. "He was talking to 3,500 students who had campaigned for him in Iowa and he was giving them a pep talk to thank them and to tell them to come to New Hampshire to do the same thing, and the media just screwed him."

The shame is that Dean waged a formidable campaign in New Hampshire. His stump speech, delivered on 25 January at Plymouth State College, was a tour de force: heavy on policy, rich in historical detail and delivered with professorial authority. It was also grounded in his achievements during a Vermont governorship that delivered the country's most comprehensive and accessible healthcare, same-sex civil unions and a balanced budget. Dean pushed the state as far towards European-style social democracy as anyone in the US has dared.

While his rivals have promised to honour the Bush administration's tax cuts for the well off, Dean has pulled no punches about the cost of progressive government. "Here's the bad news," Dean told a crowd when asked about the outsourcing of American jobs to China. "If you want to create and keep jobs in this country, you're going to have to pay a bit more in Wal-Mart. Capitalism is the most productive system that has ever existed, but capitalism without rules is like playing ice hockey without referees. Nobody benefits."

This candour gave Dean the early momentum. But the issues he brought to the debate - such as an unambiguously anti-war critique and his attacks on the lobbying power of corporate interests - have been appropriated by other candidates and repackaged and neutralised as TV soundbites. The thinker's best lines have been stolen by salesmen.

Dean optimists will point to the Clintonian comeback of 1992 which followed a second-place finish in New Hampshire. But Clinton was heading home to the south. It is hard to imagine how Dean, having failed to win the support of a state neighbouring his Vermont base, can haul himself back into contention.

Kerry could also struggle away from his north-eastern base. But any major shift in the polls is likely to favour the Arkansas native Wesley Clark or John Edwards, with his southern-spun moral vision.