WASHINGTON -- Howard Dean is preparing to abandon his race for the Democratic presidential nomination if he loses Wisconsin's primary, several advisers said Sunday, despite the candidate's assertions to the contrary.
Steve Grossman, national chairman of Dean's campaign, said the former Vermont governor will seek to convert his grass-roots network into a movement that helps expand the party and elect the Democratic nominee -- "and, obviously, that looks likely to be John Kerry."
The sentiments were echoed by other high-ranking campaign officials, though they differed on how much -- if any -- direct help Dean would be willing to give Kerry. Polls show the Massachusetts senator, who has won 14 of 16 contests to date, holding a wide lead in Wisconsin, site of Tuesday's contest.
The comments came as Dean struck a defiant tone hours before debating his rivals in Milwaukee. "We're going to keep going, no matter what, because I think there are a lot of people all over this country who want to rebuild the party and rebuild America in a different way," Dean said on "Fox News Sunday."
Dean had told supporters via e-mail that a defeat Tuesday would end his bid for the nomination, but he has backed away from that statement in recent days.
Several advisers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Dean has privately acknowledged that his prospects for the presidency will effectively end if he suffers another major defeat Tuesday. They leave open the remote possibility that he will waver again, but said it's highly unlikely given his comments in recent meetings.
And, for the first time, there is growing consensus among advisers that it would be foolhardy for Dean to continue fighting for the nomination beyond Wisconsin. The circle of die-hards has shrunk, and most confidants are telling Dean it's time to begin making plans to convert his Internet-fueled network into a long-term political movement.
"I have no doubt he'll support the nominee in any way he can, no matter who the nominee is and obviously that nominee looks to be John Kerry," Grossman said in a telephone interview from Vermont. "He may say that Tuesday night. He may wait until Wednesday or Thursday to say that."
Grossman said Dean feels just as strongly that he is obligated to press for reforms supported by voters who made him last year's front-runner. "In what form that movement takes, I can't spell that out to you and I don't think Howard could right now, either," said Grossman, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
"I believe that work will effectively be in concert with ... and fairly supportive of John Kerry, should he become the nominee, and it appears he will," Grossman said.
Other top advisers said they had doubts whether Dean would ever work directly on Kerry's behalf this year. They are discussing ways to use Dean's network to help elect Democrats to Congress who would support Kerry's agenda as president, several officials said. Scores of campaigns aides were making plans to leave their jobs after Tuesday.
Campaign manager Roy Neel did not dispute the assertions of Grossman and other advisers, but said it was premature to write Dean's campaign obituary.
"Any and all options are on the table," Neel said. "The results Tuesday night will help dictate what he does but he is still passionately committed to continuing the message. What form he does it in, any option for that is on the table."
Advisers say Dean is torn between his pragmatic conclusion that the race is about over and his emotional attachment to the fight itself and his supporters. His staff is looking at several options -- such as suspending, not technically ending, the campaign -- that would give Dean a voice in the process even after he concedes.
"This is a delicate balancing act that has to be struck for Howard Dean," Grossman said. "His supporters, they will not want him to give up and will want to carry out the cause. His name is on the ballot in many states whether he campaigns or is less engaged. The fact is Howard Dean will do everything possible to help the nominee. He will do nothing to undercut the nominee's success."
The advisers sought to square their perceptions with Dean's public remarks.
"When Howard Dean says he's not going to quit, what he means is the battle to restore democracy and citizen participation is long-term and he's not going to quit on that battle," Grossman said.
But Dean would quit attacking Kerry, the chairman said.
"Should he not win Wisconsin, you will see a meaningful shift in rhetoric, a meaningful shift in tone and a meaningful shift in the time he spends" building his campaign base into a long-term movement," Grossman said.
Associated Press writer Jennifer C. Kerr contributed to this story.