On the surface, it makes little sense: He spent more time and money campaigning in Iowa than any other candidate, and his organization – staffed by an army of dedicated collegians – was by far the largest. Yet the return on Howard Dean’s investment was a slap in the face. Less than one in five Iowans voted for him. Hardest hit are surely Dean’s idealistic supporters, who were convinced Dean was riding a wave of unstoppable momentum. Iowa was a major upset for them. The race has been blown wide open again.

Reading interviews with Iowan voters, it seems that perceptions of Dean being a churlish man turned them off. I imagine there is little Dean could have done to better reinforce this damaging view than his pugnacious “I Have a Scream” speech, made shortly after the results came in. After a few defiant remarks about how he’d never give up, Dean made a throaty, pro-wrestling-style rant with a howl as the coda. It confirmed for many what seems to be Dean’s fatal flaw: He lacks the dignity of manner and self-possession befitting a president. As I argued in this space last week, unchecked anger is a major liability in American politics. Already, polls show Dean slipping in New Hampshire, a state that many predicted he would dominate.

Dean himself acknowledged this shortcoming while speaking with ABC anchor Diane Sawyer. “Now look,” he said, “I mean, was it over the top? Sure it was over the top. Do I do things that are a little nutty? Sure, I do things that are a little nutty.” The effect on most Democratic voters of doing things that are “a little nutty” is undesirable. Even a Dean supporter wrote unhappily on Dean’s campaign blog, “I’ve given money. I’ve hosted a house party. I’ve put up signs. But… that speech was the most unpresidential thing I have ever seen. That was awful. I’m distraught. I’ll still work hard, but my heart is no longer in it.”

Analyst Stuart Rothenberg wrote, “He meant to convey an impression of confidence, certainty and commitment, but instead conveyed a message of emotional instability.” According to David Letterman, “Here’s what happened: The people of Iowa realized they didn’t want a president with the personality of a hockey dad.”

Joe Trippi, Dean’s campaign manager, quickly stepped in to give “the real story” – Dean “wasn’t thinking about the cameras” but was speaking exclusively to his hyped-up crowd. This is understandable. All along, Dean has catered to the far left, which revels in his anger, while supporters label the other half of Democrats – the half that supported the war, for example – as “Bush Lite.” The Dean approach elicits peals of delight from the liberal base, but to the exclusion of moderate Democrats.

While Dean rails against “Washington Democrats,” that’s precisely whom Iowans chose. John Kerry is the quintessential establishment politician, a distinguished fourth-term senator with a position on nearly every major policy issue. As a result of the Iowa caucuses, columnist Gregg Easterbrook wrote, “Suddenly we see photographs of John Kerry looking dashing and presidential across from photos of Howard Dean with his neck veins bulging as if he’s caught in an airlock from which the pressure is escaping.”

The lesson from Iowa is that harping on the situation in Iraq is not enough to woo anti-war Democrats – Kerry got more of their vote than did Dean – nor is an army of students or big-name endorsements enough. Better to have dignity, a positive vision for America and a record of experience. Dean finally got the message. Now, his aides assure us that he will tone down the rhetoric. In New Hampshire on the Wednesday after the infamous speech, Dean spoke calmly, and not about the war but about campaign finance reform. “I still have not recovered my voice from my screeching in Iowa,” Dean said, and neither has his campaign. But it is too soon to count him out. After all, this isn’t the first time Dean has been down.

Daily Nexus columnist Joey Tartakovsky can be reached at bluetrafficlights@hotmail.com .