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Gary Younge
Spirit of the Dean machine

By the end of the evening, he was a third place loser with a scream only a therapist could love. Six weeks and 17 contests without a win later, he looks a bit like an embarrassing uncle, hanging around the nibbles waiting to be told that the party is over and it's time to go home. Barring some Lazarus-like recovery in Wisconsin, by the time you read this he may have already been escorted out.

But, just as there was a huge amount that the left around the world could learn about his ascent, there are also valuable lessons in his demise that go beyond the United States. For in almost every party - from New Labour to Gerhard Schröder's SDP - there is potential for a Howard Dean to emerge and challenge their party hierarchies. True, if they are interested in enhancing their own career prospects the former Vermont governor is a poor role model. But if they are keen to improve their party's election prospects and set the agenda, he has broken and reset the mould.

Dean's rise showed it was possible to mount a credible electoral challenge from the left even in a country at war, where dissent has been marginalised by both the political and media establishments. Unlike the other two leftwing candidates - Dennis Kucinich and the Reverend Al Sharpton - Dean's candidacy was not symbolic but substantial. He stood in order to win - and for a while it looked as though he might. The fact that he didn't has bitterly disappointed some. The fact that he was in the running shocked even more.

His defeat indicates that even when the challenge does not succeed at the polls, it can, none the less, have a crucial effect on the entire political culture and enhance the electoral prospects of the centre-left as a whole. For as soon as Dean's candidacy proved viable it shifted the centre of political gravity considerably to the left, prompting a far more strident tone among all the candidates. By snatching the initiative away from the right, his candidacy made John Kerry look moderate and Bush look extreme.

By changing the terms of the debate, Dean forced all the candidates to address the kind of questions Democratic voters were asking and for which president Bush had no answers. By the time the polls opened, it was Kerry and Dick Gephardt who had to clarify why they supported the war, rather than Dean explaining why he opposed it.

In so doing, they were forced to address a section of their membership that the Democratic party, like New Labour, have held in contempt for the past decade - that awkward bunch who offer their support conditionally because they regard an election not just as a chance to change faces, but also policies and direction.

In his defeat, Dean revealed that this constituency does not comprise anything like a majority. But through his contention he has proved that, when mobilised, it is a sizeable minority that cannot be ignored. Between them, Dean, Kucinich and Sharpton have attracted, on average, just over one-fifth of the votes cast - a figure that held steady in marginal states the Democrats must win in November.

As a result, the Democratic party is now in far better shape to defeat Bush in November. In a contest where there will be few votes to be harvested at the centre, Dean has energised their base, contributing to record turnouts in most of the primaries and caucuses, and has highlighted Bush's weaknesses.

To pass all this off as a victory would be ridiculous. Having shaped the landscape, Dean found that others were better equipped to build successful campaigns on it. His tone was too edgy, his message too blunt, his spouse too absent for too long. Whatever the different human ingredients that voters look for in a potential president and whatever we may think of them, Dean clearly had too few, and those he did have he used poorly.

So for the significant number of Democrats, particularly, but by no means exclusively, the young, who had invested a huge amount of physical and emotional energy in him, his broader achievements offer little solace. Their devastation is both understandable and unfortunate.

Understandable because, for many, this was their first involvement in politics, either ever or for a long time. Losing so heavily was dispiriting. Unfortunate because had they believed their own rhetoric the defeat would not have come as quite so much of a shock. They told every one who would listen that they were going to "take back America". But apparently some thought this task could be achieved at the first attempt and that America - corporate, military, fundamentalist - would come quietly. Having berated the media for being biased they were shocked when they were misrepresented.

Whether the energy Dean has unleashed has a lasting effect or not will depend on the great unknown - what the nascent movement that gathered around him will do without him. Those who got involved only so that they could elect Dean will be disillusioned, because their work stops here and does not resonate beyond US shores. Those who joined up so that they could make a difference should be delighted, because theirs has only just begun and holds a lesson for all of us.

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