The wine is flowing, the chips are dipping and the conversation is turning brazenly partisan. And why shouldn't it? This is not some effete soiree that hopes to nudge funds out of its guests for an inoffensive but deserving charity. It's not some wild frat party meant to raise blood-alcohol and designate drivers. No, this is a Howard Dean house party, one of the Dean campaign's unconventional tactics to attract money for the former Vermont governor who is rising to the top of the crowded field of Democratic presidential nominees. This gathering, one of 90 house parties thrown across Texas within the past several days, is being held at the North Dallas home of Ellen Silverman. Her daughter Julie, a pre-med student, has returned from college in Maryland with the idea of drumming up support for Dean among her parents' friends.
"I don't know much about Dean," says guest Chuck Stein, a local accountant. "But I know we need to get rid of Bush. From Iraq to the environment to women's rights, he is a one-man destructive force."
"My guy is Bob Graham [senator from Florida], but he is not taking off," Moe Stein adds. "I think we need someone from the South, but Graham seems charismatically challenged."
"I was hoping Dean would be here," says real estate investor Mike Grossfeld, "but I hear that he is not coming. I'm just excited to be in a roomful of Democrats."
Julie, who bears a passing resemblance to Lisa Loeb, apologizes to the group for any misunderstanding and says that she and co-host Nancy Kasten will instead show a DVD of Dean speaking at another house party.
The concept of house parties is nothing new; candidates in the early stages of an election will stump for practically anyone willing to listen. What Dean seems to be pioneering is the absentee appearance, the guest of honor who makes his presence felt by a conference call or video presentation. "The beauty for the campaign is that he can raise money nonstop," says Glen Maxey, Texas state organizer for the Dean campaign. "Between a rally and a fund-raiser, he may have 30 minutes of travel time. He could be stuck in traffic or the hallway of a hotel, and at the same time he is interacting with people on his cell phone in real time."
But Dean may not be phoning the Silverman household this Wednesday. "It is possible, but the goal for each house party is to raise $5,000," Maxey says. "If you go there and there are only 15 people, you should know the call ain't coming."
As the guests--about 30 Anglos of all ages--settle into the living room to watch the video, Julie tells how she became interested in Dean, a medical doctor by training, after hearing him speak in March at a Washington health-care conference. "He didn't sound like a normal politician. He seemed to be speaking straight from his heart." Others find his stump-style more brusque: He seldom pulls punches or parses words, often growing red-faced while incessantly repeating rhetorical slogans such as "You have the power!" to excite crowds into near rock concert frenzy.
Like many Dean supporters, Julie was a political neophyte who felt inspired enough to get involved. In May she attended a "meet-up," another Dean campaign tactic that relies on the Internet to build its grassroots following. The first meet-ups weren't even connected to the Dean campaign. They arose spontaneously from the Web site www.meetup.com, which organizes real-world "gatherings about anything, anywhere," according to the site, from knitters to cat lovers, anarchists to Young Republicans.
"We have the largest meet-up group in the world with more than 91,400 [currently 97,500] members," says Dori Clark, New Hampshire communications director for the Dean campaign. "It's a great organizing tool. The first Wednesday of every month, small groups get together across the country in, say, a coffeehouse or a restaurant to talk about Howard Dean and ways to help his candidacy."
Groups go online and vote on the location of their next meeting, which in Dallas is often the Lakewood Theater. "We had over 150 people at our last meet-up at the Lakewood, and more than half were first-time attendees," says Tony McMullin, a local Dean activist. "We organized several of the Dallas house parties for last week, but the best part is mingling with other Dean supporters face to face."
The grunt work in a traditional campaign is knocking on doors, manning phone banks, "finding people who think like you do," says Susan Hays, Dallas County Democratic Party chair. "The Internet makes that easy, and Dean is using it in a way that has never been done before." Nowhere is that more evident than in the fund-raising prowess of the Dean campaign, which taps the 330,000 e-mail subscribers to its Web site, www.deanforamerica.com, as though they were part of a PBS pledge drive. The campaign challenges those on its e-mail list to match the money Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney might be raising at some high-dollar Republican fund-raiser. The average contribution is only $66, but givers are encouraged to send fund-raising e-mails for Dean to the people on their own e-mail lists. Through the help of these e-mail blitzes, Dean has raised $7.6 million in the quarter ending in July, leading all other Democratic candidates in contributions.
Dean hasn't phoned yet, and Julie doesn't expect he will. She lowers the lights in the living room and projects the Dean DVD against the wall, enlarged for all to view. It was shot in July at a Dallas house party after Dean spoke to 1,500 perspiring supporters outside City Hall. Standing on the stairway in shirtsleeves, Dean joked with the crowd, many of them gays and lesbians. They were early Dean supporters partly because he signed Vermont's "civil unions" bill, which he sees as an equal rights issue but social conservatives see as the amoral equivalent of gay marriage. Clinton-styled New Democrats, however, see the issue--as well as Dean's early opposition to the Iraq war--as the reason he is unelectable.
But Dean takes those Democrats to task, claiming he is from the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party"; that no Democrat can be elected by being "Bush Lite." He challenges his detractors to look at his five terms as governor and still pin a liberal label on him. He candidly admits that he is pro-choice, pro-gay rights and pro-universal health care. But he is also pro-death penalty (when the victims are cops or kids), anti-gun control (a question of states' rights) and says he has a history of balancing the budget in his state. "So maybe I am liberal, and maybe I am not," he teased. He harped on a "we can do better than Bush" theme and wowed the cheering crowd with his plain talk and clearly articulated stance on the issues.
The Silverman house party animals, however, are a harder sell. As the lights go up, the discussion turns lively when some worry that Dean won't play well in Texas. "How do we make sure Dean isn't going to be another George McGovern?" asks Moe Stein. The discussion veers between those who are interested in supporting the one Democrat who is "electable" and those who feel they should support the "best candidate" for the job. "Do we vote strategically, or do we vote our conscience?" asks a woman sitting on the floor. "I think voting strategically is like trying to time the market."
"We are talking like Bush is this juggernaut who can't lose," argues another man. "Folks, he lost the last election."
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Most like what Dean has to say, finding him a confident, viable contender. But it's six months before the Texas primary, and there is a reluctance to commit to any candidate. "I like him," says Cecilia Boone, "but it's early days." His Internet wizardry is fascinating grassroots stuff, she agrees, "but will he get the kind of commitment and energy that the Republicans get from the religious right?"
Many in the group just appreciate a refreshing evening of political discourse and wonder if they can continue as a meet-up or in some other fashion. Co-host Nancy Kasten volunteers to keep e-mailing the group about other political events, "say, if Senator John Kerry [another Democratic contender] came to town and people wanted to attend a function for him," she says.
That may not be the result the Dean campaign imagined for its house party, yet Julie Silverman seems pleased with the event. "People left happy and informed," she says. "We did raise awareness, even if we didn't raise much money."
At least, not enough to convince Dean to call.