I was here at

January 27, 2004 10:31 p.m.

I was here at the Dean election night party site, arriving a bit before 8 PM, in time to catch the excited reactions to the early projections of a close race. The event room was a cavernous basketball court that held probably more than 600 people (I’m just not a good judge of crowd size). For most of the evening, until Dean hit the stage, the crowd rested somewhere between disappointment and dejection. “Somnolent” was the word I jotted down in my notebook.

Many watched the four wide-screen TVs where John Kerry’s double-digit lead just wouldn’t go away. No catcalls, no upset looks, no nothing — just taking it in.

Later, a group of us stood on one of the risers twenty or thirty feet away from Dean as he spoke to his crowd of supporters.

I don’t know how it seemed on television (you have me at a disadvantage on that one). But in person he seemed strong and commanding, hitting each of the key points he’s been working over the last week. And though the crowd seemed subdued for most of the evening, they were electrified by Dean, with shouting and cheering and foot-stomping all through his speech.

When it was over, the reporter standing next to me, turned and said: “If he would have given this speech last week, this would be a very different story.”

Without talking to everyone in the room you can’t know what people are thinking. And when you ask, as a journalist, you create a sort of Heisenbergian distortion that still keeps you from knowing. But the enthusiasm I saw in the crowd, when they were listening to Dean speak, seemed completely unrelated to tonight’s result. The excitement was all about them and Dean. Where the campaign would be in a week — good or bad — seemed like a secondary matter.

I think the excitement would hardly have been much different if his final vote total had been no larger than the number of people in the room with him tonight.

Over the course of the evening I saw various members of Dean’s core staff. And they seemed curiously unfazed by everything that had happened. They certainly weren’t jubilant. But they didn’t seem particularly disappointed either. They seemed like the whole thing went as they’d expected. And they were ready to move on to the next front.

I haven’t spent much of any time with these people. So I wouldn’t be the best judge. But that’s what it looked like to me.

Dean said that New Hampshire had “allowed our camp to regain its momentum” and that “we did what we needed to do tonight.” And I think that’s right. But just barely. I think they’re in desperate shape. And I think they know it.

In isolation, this wasn’t such a bad result. Dean took a heavy blow in Iowa, collapsed in the polls, and then battled his way back to what he rightly called a “solid second.”

But Iowa and New Hampshire were his two best states. And now he’s going into seven states which should all be harder for him to win than these two. Some vastly more difficult.

What this race is now about is whether John Kerry can carry this momentum into the Midwest and the South. If he can — and that’s not at all clear — then it’s over.

More thoughts on the state of the race later this evening.

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