Dean is hoping a win will turn his campaign around, following a series of bruising defeats everywhere since Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as the damaging and widely circulated sound bite with the primal scream he elicited during his post-New Hampshire pep speech.
A turnaround may be difficult for Dean, who was the first to announce his candidacy for the Democratic nomination and the first to run TV advertising back in the summer of 2003. He spent more than $6.6 million in TV advertising through early January, according to the Wisconsin Advertising Project. More than $2 million was spent in Iowa by then for its mid-January caucus and another nearly $1 million ahead of the New Hampshire primary, the two first tests of the presidential campaign.
But for all that money spent on TV ads, there's very little to show for it. Dean hasn't won a state primary or caucus despite being the front-runner until the first few weeks of January.
"A win there will carry us to the big states of March 2 and narrow the field to two candidates," Dean states in the email effort. "Anything less would put us out of the race." (By the end of Thursday, Dean denied his email said he would quit if he lost Wisconsin.)
A source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Dean had been fixing to do battle with a flight of campaign ads in Wisconsin and fellow rust-belt state Michigan, but that plans had changed. Calls to Dean's campaign headquarters in Burlington, Vt., weren't returned Thursday. But the candidate canceled plans in Michigan and was campaigning in Wisconsin. Dean ads apparently haven't aired in Wisconsin since last September, when 287 spots were aired for a total of $99,000.
"The problem he has is money," said Richard P. Haven, an associate dean and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. "He can't go in with a big media buy until he gets that money."
Haven, who studies political advertising in Wisconsin, said Thursday afternoon that Dean's campaign made the strategic decision to buy media early in an effort to blow the other candidates out of the water and capture Iowa, New Hampshire and eventually the nomination. But Dean spent too much money too fast and he's got little to show for it.
"They need a win. They don't think they're going to get it in the other primaries and caucuses," Haven said. "He [Dean] needs a primary win, and he believes Wisconsin, by the nature of the open primary, offers him the best shot leading up to Super Tuesday."
Wisconsin hasn't factored into the nomination process in the past 35 years because it's primary has been held later, when the presidential candidate has already been chosen and the voting process largely symbolic. The Wisconsin primary hasn't had this much importance since 1968, when Sen. Robert F. Kennedy jumped into the campaign late after President Lyndon B. Johnson decided against running for a second full term.
When Wisconsin moved up the date, the primary took on more importance, particularly in a multi-candidate race. It's the only one to be held that day, which gives candidates who are remaining the first chance since New Hampshire at a single-state primary.
A renewed primary process could mean a windfall for the state's TV stations, though many station executives didn't think that was going to happen. "This isn't Iowa," explained one station executive.
"This is the first year we've had an early primary, so we have nothing to compare [on political ad revenues]," said Don Carmichael, station manager of ABC affiliate WBAY in Green Bay, the state's second-largest market. "Before, the primary was so late, we rarely got any advertising. It's usually all wrapped up by then."
But so far, two weeks before voters go to the polls, Wisconsin TV stations haven't seen much. WBAY has had advertising only from retired Gen. Wesley Clark, another candidate who considers Wisconsin to be crucial to building momentum. There have been inquiries from the other candidates, with U.S. Sen. John Edwards scheduled to begin a flight.
At WISC, a CBS affiliate in Madison, spots for Edwards began Thursday and will run through Sunday. Clark made four separate weekly buys that ran from Jan. 6 through Feb. 2.
"That's all we have, surprisingly enough," said Steve Scadden, director of national and regional sales. He said that Dean ran one flight last September but hasn't since then. There have been fresh inquiries from other campaigns but "nothing concrete," Scadden said.
Edwards' spots were also running in Milwaukee, the state's largest market, but Clark's had abruptly stopped this week.
"They're spending money but it's not like there's a lot of money being spent by these candidates," said Frank Biancuzzo, president and general manager of WISN, the ABC affiliate in Milwaukee.
If Dean is to get on the air in Wisconsin, the clock is ticking. Most stations demand payment up front from political candidates, all the more so because it could be life or death for campaigns in this late stage. Dean's campaign by Thursday night had raised $726,591.62 for the Wisconsin spots.
"We don't have much time," WBAY's Carmichael said of political advertising, echoing other TV executives. "If they're going to get on, they're going to have to get on soon."
Haven, the professor from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, said Dean is going to be facing a stiff challenge.
For Dean to win, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry would have to stumble and Clark and Edwards -- two other candidates between Dean and the front-runner, both coming off wins earlier this week -- would have to fall apart. Haven said Wisconsin voters, who are independent-minded, might be attracted to the outsider Clark or the populist Edwards at the former Vermont governor's expense.
"All four candidates think they can win here and therefore it makes for a very interesting primary," Haven said.
He acknowledges that it's nice to have Wisconsin back in the game, politically. And he doesn't see Dean gaining traction with voters, at least not yet.
"I would be surprised if he won Wisconsin, given the dynamics of the race," Haven said.