On The Trail

The Deaniacs Live!

On the convention floor with the last true believers.

BOSTON—He won’t garner many delegates during Wednesday night’s roll call, but Howard Dean still leads in the hearts of at least one demographic: people with home-made signs. Even offline, here on the floor of the FleetCenter, his most ardent supporters possess a blogger’s sensibility. They reject the lame “Doing Right for America” placards provided by the message-masters of the Democratic National Convention as props to wave during Dean’s Tuesday night speech. How “mass media,” how “broadcast,” to print thousands of posters of unremitting sameness and then expect that one size to fit all.

Instead, as Dean walks to the podium, his true believers hold aloft Dean for America T-shirts and signs, relics from the primary campaign. They carried them in themselves, so they could show their allegiance at this moment. One sign is so wrinkled and worn it looks like it was accidentally left in someone’s shirt pocket and put in the wash. Like a longtime fan sporting a tattered T-shirt at a rock concert, the delegate refuses to part with it.

But the true Deaniac spirit is carried on by the delegates who drew up signs using posterboard and magic marker, like a fourth-grade art project. There’s a row of four hand-scrawled letters, D-E-A-N. Others say, “Thanks, Howard,” “Vermont [Heart Sign] Dean,” “XO Dean,” and “I Screamed for Dean, Now I Scream for Kerry.” In the same do-it-yourself spirit, the local Dean Meetup printed up stickers reading, “Another Dean Democrat for Kerry” and handed them out to the crowd filing into the convention. One woman in the Colorado delegation brandishes a gigantic black-and-white enlargement of Dean on the cover of Time magazine. She looks like the love child of a political activist and a crazed basketball fan trying to distract a free-throw shooter.

Dean also seems to enjoy a disproportionate share of support among delegates in elaborate costume, the people with red-white-and-blue sequined top hats or plush-toy donkeys on their heads. Three women in sombreros from the Texas delegation can’t get enough of him. Almost exactly a year ago, I described the Dean campaign as having a “low-rent allure,” and here it all is, still on glorious display.

The crowd roars and roars and roars, a neverending ovation. The most enthusiastic Deaniacs seem to be in the back, in the worst seats, in the red states where Democrats can’t win. Dean calls out to these marginalized Democrats during the speech, saying: “We’re going to be proud to call ourselves Democrats, not just here in Boston. We’re going to be proud to call ourselves Democrats in Mississippi, proud to call ourselves Democrats in Utah and Idaho. And we’re going to be proud to call ourselves Democrats in Texas.” The Utah and Texas delegations behind me stand and—what else—scream.

The Colorado woman with the humongous Time cover sits rapt during the entire speech. I can’t quite tell, but I think she’s on the verge of tears. Dean walked out to “Revolution,” and—except for the two miniature pom-poms stuck in her hair—this woman’s ecstasy comes straight out of an old Beatlemania newsreel.

When the speech is over, I walk over and ask about her costume, which I now notice includes a “Deaniac for Kerry” pin. “It’s retail politics, it’s getting people excited about politics again,” she enthuses. “You gotta have a gimmick.” Her name tag says Leslie Robinson, 2nd Vice Chair of the Colorado Democratic Party. She was a Dean Meetup host. “Notice how he didn’t say it was about me the candidate,” she says. “He said it was about ‘you.’ “

Unprompted, she volunteers a point that helps explain why the loudest cheering seems to come from red-state delegates. The Dean campaign was driven by “people who felt disenfranchised for a long, long time,” Robinson says. I ask her what she means by that. “They didn’t think that their vote counted,” she explains. “They didn’t think they could make a difference. And he showed them that we can.”

I ask if she’s a Dean delegate. She shakes her head. “When Howard Dean decided to support Kerry, I’m a good soldier, and I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ ” she says, standing up and snapping a stiff military salute.