Gong Show

Howard DeanPhoto: Globe Photos

In the good old days—which is to say, four weeks ago—Ethan Geto, the six-foot-seven-inch-tall head of Howard Dean’s New York primary organization, would ceremoniously bang a big bronze gong every time something fabulous happened in the Dean campaign. “I haven’t banged it lately,” Geto admits.

Dean’s New York team still operates out of sprawling Lexington Avenue digs, six times the size of the original headquarters, that it moved into (a tad prematurely) back when things were flush and the doctor was operating on all cylinders. But the only gong show these days is Dean’s own: One minute he’s promising to drop out after Wisconsin if he loses the state (gong!). The next, he’s pledging to stay in the race no matter what (gong!). And the next, he’s talking about pee to preschoolers (gong!).

For the New York faithful, waiting for the next Howard Dean moment has to be sheer torture—especially in contrast to Kerry’s spectacular surge (assuming he survives the next barrage of headlines from the Drudge Report). Over the past year, the 60-year-old Geto and his 28-year-old deputy, Eric Schmeltzer (who quit his job on Capitol Hill with Representative Jerry Nadler after drinking the Dean Kool-Aid), along with their 23-year-old field director, Scott Spector, methodically assembled the largest statewide organization in the history of presidential politics: 70,000 volunteers; more than twenty times the number of signatures required to get on the ballot; endorsements from 38 of the 62 Democratic county chairs; and all those crazy kids with signs in Times Square. And this in the most notoriously difficult state to organize (“the Soviet Republic of New York,” as John McCain once called it). All to watch Howard Dean scream his way to single digits.

“There was a period of many months,” says Geto, “when the New York campaign thought that our efforts might be moot because Dean would wrap up the nomination by February.” Now they don’t know if he’ll even make it to March 2. Or perhaps worse to all those supporters secretly wishing they could bolt, plan C: that he’ll be creamed in Wisconsin and still stay in the race. The only thing everyone in the campaign seems certain of is that nothing’s certain. “All of us are trying to figure out what Howard’s intentions are,” says one top aide.

Episodes like the one in early February didn’t help. That’s when Team Dean woke up to discover that Howard had decided to send a middle-of-the-night e-mail bombshell to his 683,000 signed-up Internet supporters (which is another story—has anyone actually counted how many of them are reporters, or people like Vast-Right-Wing Conspiracy queen Lucianne Goldberg, who joined DeanforAmerica.com just to “get a laugh every morning”?). In any event, the morning Hello from HoHo on February 5—that he was putting all his marbles in Wisconsin, it was Wisconsin or bust, he was pulling out of the race if he didn’t win there—is generally the type of strategy decision you might want to share with your statewide organizers before hitting the SEND key. Particularly the campaign faithful slavishly organizing the states that come after Wisconsin. Like New York.

“We got the morning e-mail, and it was like, holy shit!” says one aide. All that day, the phones rang off the hook in the Lexington Avenue offices—donors asking why they should keep giving money, volunteers asking why they should keep banging on doors in Massapequa, Deaniacs wondering what to do with all those I AM DEAN FOR AMERICA signs. (Should they do another lit-drop or go to their piercing appointment?) “They were all like, ‘What the fuck is he doing?’ ” says the aide.

Welcome to the Dean campaign as it heads into Super Tuesday and the New York primary—the state that was a shoo-in for Howard just a little over a month ago, the state that can actually claim him as its own. And the state that would soon prove to Howard Dean that if you can screw up here, you can screw up anywhere.

Though Geto—who is known to come into the office at noon and leave at 3 a.m. (not the following day, but two days later)—has collapsed three times from sheer exhaustion, he still soldiers on. Geto believed in Howard Dean from the day they met at a dive near Penn Station in January 2003: Howard had taken a train in alone from Burlington. It was his first day as a civilian; his term as governor of Vermont had ended the day before, and he was suddenly stripped of his security detail and his driver. He was such a nobody then that when he walked through Penn Station, not a single person recognized him. But he wanted to be president! And New York City, his hometown, was the place he needed to start. Nine months later, at the peak of the Dean juggernaut, 10,000 New Yorkers packed into Bryant Park to catch a glimpse of the front-runner. Geto still wears his T-shirt from that night.

But Dean hasn’t been back here since December, and until Wisconsin shakes out, Geto can’t even get a commitment from Dean when he might return, making it somewhat difficult to line up all those once-staunch Dean supporters like Al Gore and Bill Bradley.

Meanwhile, the news from Wisconsin is sounding even bleaker than the poll numbers. “He’s drawing big crowds,” one insider confides. “But they’re coming to him as a personality, not to vote for him. They’ll come to the events to see the guy who screamed on TV. And then they’ll vote for Kerry.”

At New York headquarters, all they can do is wait and watch. Well, maybe not watch. In fact, Team Dean won’t be following the returns in the swank Lexington Avenue offices on Tuesday night. “We don’t have cable TV,” says an aide. “They couldn’t pay for it.

“I really can relate to Howard and Judy now,” he cracks.

Gong Show