Onetime presidential contender Howard Dean announced his candidacy for the Democratic Party chairmanship Tuesday, dismaying some party leaders who feared a Dean victory would derail their efforts to reposition the party on national security and social issues.
This time last year, Dean was an insurgent presidential candidate who had ignited grass-roots support within his party -- and alarmed much of its congressional leadership -- with his stance against the Iraq war and his liberal views on social issues. His fundraising, particularly through the Internet, had vaulted the former Vermont governor and physician to the front of the pack as voting approached in the party’s nomination race.
But then Dean placed third in the Iowa caucuses last January, gave a heated concession speech that raised questions about his temperament and never seriously contested Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry’s path to the nomination. Democrats went on to suffer a bruising defeat in November, when Republicans retained the White House and widened their majorities in the House and Senate.
Many Democratic Party leaders have vowed to project a more moderate image on social issues, such as abortion, and a stronger image on national security. And they see Dean’s candidacy for the party’s chairmanship as a threat to the rebuilding strategy.
“The man has a love-hate relationship within the Democratic Party,” said one party strategist, speaking on condition that he not be named. “He has his ardent supporters, many of them the party activists who will cast votes for the chairman of the party. And he has his detractors in Congress, who believe he sends the wrong message for the party at this time.”
Dean’s communications director, Laura Gross, said that if he was elected chairman, “he would not run for president in 2008.”
Dean is banking on strong support from the same activists who fueled his presidential bid and who are heavily represented among the 441 delegates who will gather in Washington in February to select the party leader. Their backing would position Dean, who has been informally campaigning for the post for weeks, as a front-runner among candidates including former Texas Rep. Martin Frost, former Indiana Rep. Timothy J. Roemer and Simon Rosenberg, leader of a party centrist group.
Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, former Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Leland and party strategist Donnie Fowler are also running.
Outgoing Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Gordon Fischer said Dean’s credentials for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship were bolstered by his “revolutionary” presidential campaign, which showed Democrats how to raise large amounts of money from small donors. “He is a very important figure in the Democratic Party,” Fischer said. “The question is whether he is the right person for the DNC chair.”
Fischer added: “We really are a party on the ropes, quite frankly. We’ve got some really big obstacles to overcome and picking the right DNC chair is the first step toward overcoming those obstacles.”
In a letter to the DNC announcing his candidacy Tuesday, Dean echoed some of the themes of his presidential campaign.
“The Democratic Party will not win election or build a lasting majority solely by changing its rhetoric, nor will we win by adopting the other side’s positions,” Dean wrote. “We must say what we mean and mean real change when we say it.”
In their bids for the chairmanship, Frost and Roemer have positioned themselves as moderates who could reach out to voters in the South and West.
Roemer had early backing from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), but his candidacy sparked fierce opposition from some abortion rights groups because of his stance against most abortions.
Frost, a 26-year House member who lost reelection in November following redistricting in Texas that favored Republicans, is well-liked by congressional Democrats. But some consider him a poor public speaker.
Rosenberg heads the New Democrat Network, a group that stresses a moderate message and targeted Latino voters in several battleground states during last year’s campaign.
Dissatisfied with the field of candidates, some congressional Democrats have pressed Terry McAuliffe, the current chairman, to stay on. But McAuliffe has resisted such suggestions.
Some Democratic governors, led by New Mexico’s Bill Richardson, are said to be looking for new candidates to run.
Art Torres, head of the California Democratic Party, said Tuesday that Democrats “ought not be afraid of Dean’s candidacy.”
As chairman, Torres said, Dean will be the party’s chief organizer and fundraiser -- but not necessarily its most prominent public face.
“There may be disagreement on who would be the best chair, but that’s healthy for our party,” Torres added. “We’re Democrats -- we’re herding cats here.”
In his letter to the party faithful, Dean said the party needed “a vibrant, forward-thinking, long-term presence in every single state and we must be willing to contest every race at every level.”
But Marshall Wittmann, a former aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who now works with the Democratic Leadership Council, the party’s leading centrist organization, said Dean would be the wrong leader for the party at this time.
“The fundamental weakness of the Democratic Party is in red-state America, where they perceive Democrats as being secularists who are weak on national security,” Wittmann said.
He expressed skepticism Dean would change that image.
Wittmann, a registered independent, also said the next chairman would have to “thread the needle” of tackling the party’s perceived weaknesses on national security and values without alienating the Democratic base.