Ron Brownstein shows why the Dem belief that Dean can be stopped right after New Hampshire, might not be true. The Dems are putting all their eggs in one basket — the southern states strategy. But, Dean is looking beyond the South.

While Howard Dean’s rivals are focusing almost entirely on the first several states that vote in the Democratic presidential race, the former Vermont governor appears to be building enough strength in the next wave of contests that he could virtually clinch the nomination by mid-February, even if he stumbles early.

With Dean’s opponents forced to concentrate their efforts on Iowa and New Hampshire — or, at most, the seven predominantly Southern and Western states that vote on Feb. 3 — the front-runner’s emerging advantage in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia, Maine and Washington that follow with primaries or caucuses later in February could provide him a formidable firewall against any early reversals.

Even if Dean’s opponents nick him in more moderate states, such as South Carolina and Oklahoma, that hold primaries Feb. 3, most analysts agree they must prevent him from dominating the mid-February contests. Otherwise, Dean could establish an insurmountable advantage heading into the 10-state showdown March 2, which includes primaries in delegate-rich California and New York.

The other problem with the strategy is that, with all the Dems focused on it, they may split the states, which would keep enough strong to continue the contest into the next round. So it delays picking a nominee and also delays the most likely inevitable Dean nomination.

Dean is considered the front-runner in five of those states (primaries in Virginia and Wisconsin and caucuses in Michigan, Washington and Maine), competitive in two others (caucuses in Nevada and the District of Columbia), and facing an uphill challenge only in Tennessee — though Gore’s recent endorsement may strengthen his position there.

“Everyone is trying to beat us in Oklahoma and South Carolina; we’ll see how they do on Feb. 3,” said Paul Maslin, Dean’s pollster. “But even if someone does win, if we beat them in Maine and Michigan and Washington, they are in deep trouble…. If you’ve won Oklahoma and Tennessee alone, do you have a candidacy on Feb. 17?”