The local Howard Dean machine gets into gear.

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The local Howard Dean machine gets into gear.

On this hot, sunny Saturday afternoon, Nick Custer is standing against the wall in a crowded hotel ballroom with a group of fellow Cochise County Democrats who have driven to Tucson from Sierra Vista to show support for presidential contender Howard Dean.

The lifelong Democrat is plenty unhappy with the White House's current occupant. "That guy we got in there now is a renegade," Custer says.

A retired Marine who served from the end of World War II straight through both Korea and Vietnam, he's most angry about the war in Iraq.

"We're going to break the bank with this thing," says Custer, 75. "It seems to me that the wealthiest people in this country are hiring the poorest to fight their wars for them."

As Custer shares his thoughts, Dean supporters continue to cram into the July 13 rally. With the crowd swelling well past expectations, organizers scurry to ask the Marriott's staff to expand the ballroom a second time. By the time Dean springs onto stage, there are at least 1,600 people packed into the banquet hall.

The former Vermont governor delivers a fiery stump speech, slamming Bush's foreign policy.

"I'm not a pacifist," says. "I don't think you can run for president without being willing to use the full force of the military might of the United States in our own defense. But there's a criteria for it. You have to be threatened."

Dean blasted Bush and other administration officials for distorting intelligence reports to build the case for the Iraq invasion.

"The vice president of the United States said he knew that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear program," says Dean. "Where is it, Mr. Vice President?"

The question brings a yell from the audience floor: "Halliburton!"

Before he finishes the speech, the former physician hammers the Bush administration for violating civil rights, squandering the surplus, returning the country to deficit spending, failing to provide universal health care and abandoning the environment. He takes shots at his fellow Democratic contenders as well.

"I find that Democrats in this country are almost as angry at Democrats in Washington as they are at the Republicans," Dean says. "We can't be like George Bush and then expect to beat him. We gotta stand up for who we are."

The rally's turnout both delighted and amazed organizers, who depended mostly on word-of-mouth and the Internet to let supporters know about Dean's visit.

The Dean campaign is leaning on the Internet more than any of the other Democratic candidates. One volunteer standing out in the hot sun praised the campaign blog at deanforamerica.com. "It's absolutely addictive," she said. "I read it every day."

Between April and June, Dean raised $7.5 million--more money than any of the other Democrats during the same period--with a big chunk coming in small donations via the Web, according to campaign officials.

Dean supporters have overrun meetup.com, a Web site that brings together people with a common interest. As of earlier this week, the Dean camp boasted the largest online community at meetup.com, with some 61,900 members; his closest rival, John Kerry, had about 6,200, while Gen. Wesley Clark (who has not yet entered the race) had roughly 4,700.

Tucson has its own Dean meet-up the first Wednesday of every month at the Northwest Neighborhood Center. Rex Scott, an early Dean supporter, has seen the crowd grow over the course of the year from about 20 folks in a coffeehouse to about 175 people at the most recent meet-up. "There might need to be two or three groups across town so they can be more manageable," he says.

Until a few years ago, Scott, 39, considered himself a moderate Republican. But after he saw "the hatchet job the Bush campaign did on McCain," he left the party to register as an independent. "I saw the party leadership as not willing to take into account the voices of people who were moderate or liberal Republicans," he says.

Earlier this month, he registered as a Democrat for the first time to vote for Dean in next year's primary. (Independents are ineligible to vote in the Feb. 3 primary.)

A TUSD principal who oversees a school with a concentration of special education students, he's particularly impressed that Dean talks about funding special ed in his stump speech.

"I've always been fiscally conservative but someone with a sense of social justice," says Scott. "When I read that Dean had balanced budgets and cut taxes and tried to keep a line on spending while also making sure that the important needs of society--like education, like health care, like the environment--were funded, I thought I had finally found the sort of candidate I've been looking for."

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