The race for Democratic Party chairman came west Saturday with seven contestants, including two former congressmen and former presidential front-runner Howard Dean, auditioning for the chance to lead the country’s minority party over the next four years.
Addressing a small audience of Democratic insiders -- 65 of whom will cast ballots next month -- and an audience of several hundred onlookers, the hopefuls sounded several common themes. They bowed to the party icons of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They promised to cede not an inch of ground to Republicans in any precinct in any state.
And each of them, mindful of their audience, pledged to do more to empower party activists at the state and local levels.
“We have to break the consultant culture in Washington,” said former Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, who until recently was a part of that Beltway culture as a 13-term member of Congress. (Frost lost his seat in November as a result of the controversial redrawing of his state’s political lines, a move engineered by Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a fellow Texan.)
The race for party chairman is focused on a small universe of roughly 450 members of the Democratic National Committee, the governing body of the party, who will make their selection at their winter meeting next month in Washington, D.C. The new chairman will replace Terry McAuliffe, whose four-year term is ending.
As part of the selection process, the candidates agreed to a series of regional road shows, appearing before members of the DNC and their invited guests. The first two question-and-answer forums were held in Georgia and Missouri. The final gathering will be next weekend in New York City.
Handicapping the race is nearly impossible, given the small electorate and the one-on-one nature of the campaign, conducted mostly over the telephone and in private meetings. But most observers agree that Dean is the front-runner by dint of his considerable name recognition and his wide grass-roots support, with others vying to emerge as the most viable alternative.
On Saturday, at least, they were treated as equals. The seven hopefuls sat elbow-to-elbow onstage in a crowded Sacramento hotel ballroom, working to distinguish themselves in a variety of ways.
Former Rep. Tim Roemer of Indiana spoke of his service on the Sept. 11 commission and attacked President Bush on his strongest political suit, the fight against terrorism.
“Have they succeeded in catching Osama bin Laden? No. Have they made the axis of evil weaker? No. Have they made us a safer world by attacking the people in Iraq? No,” Roemer said, as the audience joined in, shouting out in the negative. “We Democrats can and must do better.”
David Leland, the former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, noted that he was the only one onstage to have served as head of a state party.
Activist Donnie Fowler said he was the only candidate who had been “on the ground” for candidates in 14 states over the last 20 years.
Wellington Webb joked about his status as the only African American in the field, quipping that as former mayor of Colorado’s biggest city, “I proved in Denver ... that someone with a mustache can win.”
Simon Rosenberg, an activist from the centrist New Democrat wing of the party, offered perhaps the day’s most provocative pitch, vowing as chairman to “end the monopoly of Iowa and New Hampshire,” the two states that lead off the presidential nominating process. The proposal drew a roar from the crowd of California activists, who have simmered for years over the state’s minimal role in the primaries.
Appealing to the same sentiment, Dean drew another big cheer by saying, “We have to stop using this state as an ATM machine and leave a little money here.”
Reprising one of the arguments of his presidential campaign, Dean insisted Democrats need not change their positions or abandon the party’s progressive principles.
“We are the centrists,” he said. “We do not need to be mini-Republicans.”
Roemer, who opposes legalized abortion, had arguably the day’s most difficult task, given the leftward leaning of his audience. He urged tolerance within the Democratic Party for differing views, while vowing to uphold the party platform.
“As Democratic National Committee chairman, I would not seek to overturn Roe v. Wade,” Roemer said, then drew a smattering of applause by adding, “Let’s talk about ways, ladies and gentleman, we can work, as the Clinton administration did, to reduce the number of abortions.”