Outsider looking in

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Times Staff Writer

Another hotel ballroom and, again, Howard Dean is at center stage.

The audience, hundreds strong, is rapturous, worshipful, hanging on every word like a life line tossed from the slightly elevated platform. Dean, who is running to become chairman of the national Democratic Party, speaks to the put-upon sentiment of every Californian in the crowd, promising to treat the state as more than a dispensary of cash to spend someplace else.

But that’s not all. Democrats have to run to win in all 50 states, Dean continues, venturing into red-voting redoubts like Alabama, and Mississippi and Montana. His voice rises as Dean ticks off the states, and the crowd begins to clap, then cheer, then roar as it hits them. “AND MICHIGAN!”

Dean shouts, his voice suddenly turning to the shrieking, guttural growl that launched a thousand parodies. “AND SOUTH DAKOTA!”


The crowd is going wild and Dean is laughing right along, his eyes crinkled and his smile wide enough to show the crowns all the way in back. Finally, after nearly 30 seconds, the din begins to die and Dean ends his mock rant with a limp “yahoo,” delivered deadpan, as if to say, “OK, is this better?”

Dean can laugh these days. Less than a year after his presidential campaign was left a heap of cinders, the former Vermont governor is the odds-on favorite to take over the Democratic Party and the job of Bush-basher-in-chief.

With Dean, of course, nothing is ever certain. He was once the heavy favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination. Heading into the Iowa caucuses, the kickoff of the 2004 campaign, his strategists identified 37,000 voters who said they definitely planned to back Dean.

He ended up with less than half that sum, a disappointment that sent his campaign reeling and launched the maniacal roll call of states -- “We’re going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona.... YEEAAARRGGGHHH!!!!!” -- that sealed his collapse.

But enough people have demonstrated enough support of late that even skeptics have started coming around to the idea of Dean as Democratic Party chairman, grudgingly if not altogether enthusiastically. (One sure sign of his perceived strength is the refusal of most Dean critics to voice their doubts on the record, mindful they may need to curry favor sometime in the future.)

“What hurt him is what’s now helping him,” said one Beltway Democratic strategist, who just a few weeks ago spoke contemptuously of Dean’s candidacy. “People imagined a caricature and now they’re actually meeting the person and, in meeting Dean, there’s a recognition he’s a man of national stature who can speak well on issues and also, through force of personality, generate a lot of excitement at the grass roots.


“That is a combination that’s very attractive to a lot of DNC members.”

The roughly 450 members of the Democratic National Committee, the party’s governing board, will meet next month in Washington, D.C., to pick a new leader to replace the outgoing Terry McAuliffe. The small voting universe and closed-door nature of the campaign -- a lot of phone calls and private meetings -- makes it tough to assess the state of the race. The faithful, like those who flocked to Dean’s Sacramento appearance last weekend, have no formal say in the process.

“Lord knows the Iowa caucuses were tricky enough with 100,000 voters,” said Paul Maslin, who served as pollster for Dean’s presidential campaign. “When you’re talking about 447 voters, you tell me how to figure it out.”

When last heard, Maslin was venting on the pages of the Atlantic Monthly, describing a presidential campaign in perpetual chaos and a candidate whose “erratic judgment, loose tongue and overall stubbornness wore our spirits down.” But now Maslin is supporting Dean’s bid for chairman, even offering informal advice.

(Joe Trippi, who ran Dean’s presidential campaign and established a reputation as the political piper of the Internet before a bitter falling out, has endorsed party activist Simon Rosenberg for the Democratic chairmanship. He declined to be interviewed for this article.)

“Howard Dean galvanized the party, awakened the party, got the party going at the grass roots. He showed how we could raise tens of millions of dollars over the Internet,” Maslin said. “For all our faults, that was a historic campaign.”

Maslin doesn’t say it but, privately, plenty of others do: The Democrats are in such a sorry state, they need to do something dramatic, even if it is a gamble. The question for many is “which Howard shows up,” as one former presidential campaign advisor puts it.


“Is it the centrist former governor who has proven his ability to manage and also to bring energy to the grass roots?” asked the former advisor, who has stayed publicly neutral in the chairmanship race. “Or is it the fire-breathing antiwar liberal?”


‘We’re talking Act 2’

Another crowd in the hundreds, this one on the Westside of Los Angeles.

Dean supporters are packing an empty gallery at the Armand Hammer Museum. Bare walls, concrete floor. The audience is mostly college students and aging hippies in ponytails and Polartec, with a few coats and ties. A single spotlight is trained on a chair on a small stage, in front of a black curtain decorated with a banner reading “Democracy for America” in blue and gold.

Dean has said he will not run for president in 2008 if elected Democratic chairman. If he loses, he won’t rule anything out.

He created Democracy for America as a political action committee after quitting the 2004 race. The purpose is supporting Democrats across the country, in races from city council to the U.S. Senate. It is also a vehicle to keep Dean’s political hopes alive. The logo, lettering, colors and the name are all borrowed from the “Dean for America” presidential campaign. So, too, is much of what he tells audiences.

He snipes at President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act (“no school board left standing”) and stirs followers by urging them to “take our country back” and exhorting them, “You have the power!” There is the same blowtorch rhetoric -- Dean inveighing against “wacko right-wing politics” and “the evil Republican machine which divides us and does anything to win” -- delivered with the same unwavering doctor-knows-best certitude.

The criticism of Dean -- too liberal, too much of the proverbial loose cannon -- and the nervousness emanating from certain quarters of the Democratic Party establishment, particularly from some governors and members of Congress, are familiar as well.


“This is kind of a redux. We’re talking Act 2 here,” Dean says.

“We’ve seen this play before, and now we hear certain lines: ‘He’s too liberal. He can’t win, how are you going to sell him in the South?’ ”

He touts his endorsement from Democratic leaders in states such as Florida, Utah, Oklahoma and Mississippi to try to dispel those doubts.

The point, which never seemed to get across in the presidential campaign, is that Dean is far more moderate than his sometimes intemperate behavior would suggest.

Indeed, as Vermont governor for 11 1/2 years, Dean was a centrist in one of the most liberal states in the country. He fought efforts to raise taxes, repeatedly balanced the budget (even though state law allowed for deficit spending), disappointed fellow Democrats who favored universal healthcare and often sided with business when the choice was jobs versus the environment. (When Democrats talk about fiscal responsibility, Republicans may pounce on a 1995 Dean statement calling for cuts in Social Security, defense spending, Medicare and veterans’ pensions to balance the federal budget. Dean has since disavowed those steps.)

Running for president, he boasted of his tightfistedness and made no secret of his friendly relations with the National Rifle Assn., saying gun control was a matter best left to individual states. Still, it was Dean’s vocal opposition to the Iraq war and scorn for Democrats he deemed too timid that made Dean a hero to liberals and others disenchanted with the Washington wing of the party.

In a sense, he is coming full circle. His breakout moment as a presidential candidate came two years ago at the same winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee when he marched to the microphone and, skipping the ritual niceties, demanded: “What I want to know is why in the world the Democratic Party leadership is supporting the president’s unilateral attack on Iraq? What I want to know is why are Democratic Party leaders supporting tax cuts?”


Dean is still running as the outsider, even as he bids to become one of the insiders, assailing the Beltway culture and a party that is run too much from the top down.

“We will empower you to do the thing you’ve already done in your states,” Dean tells DNC members from across the West at a Sacramento audition.

There is more nuance, however, than his flat-out statements suggest.

Dean promises to consult regularly with the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill to coordinate the party’s message. And even on the war in Iraq, his stance is scarcely different from Bush’s at this point.

Asked in Westwood about the possibility of withdrawing U.S. troops, Dean launches a lengthy attack on the president, saying his actions have created precisely what Bush said he wished to eliminate: a breeding ground for anti-American terrorists. That said, Dean suggests that the upcoming Iraqi elections are vital and the U.S. must stay the course.

Many in the crowd obviously wish Dean were president, or at least had been the Democratic nominee. He owns up to a twinge or two himself, but quickly cuts off a questioner who laments “the wrong guy” won the primaries. “We’re not going down that road folks,” Dean says evenly.

“We’re all in this together.”

He is less deft, though, handling a question from far left field. What, a young man wants to know, is preventing the Bush administration from faking an attack with weapons of mass destruction so as to suspend the Constitution and establish a totalitarian Republican regime? “You are!” Dean brightly exclaims. The crowd cheers, but the moment recalls the sort of reckless aside that hurt Dean during the presidential campaign, when he alluded on National Public Radio to a “theory” that Bush had advance warning of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.


“I still have a lot of respect for him,” says the former Dean campaign advisor who is keeping out of the chairmanship fight. “[But] part of me is concerned about his ability to speak before he thinks.”

Asked during a brief interview about his penchant for commenting off the cuff -- an attractive quality in an insurgent candidate, perhaps, but more problematic for a party chairman -- Dean reiterates his intention “to have regular meetings with the leaders in Congress so we’re all on the same page.”

But stepping into a white van as he leaves Sacramento, Dean defends the unscripted outspokenness that “makes people in Washington nervous” about him: “That’s also what draws people to the party. I mean, Americans are tired of politics where everybody says something that’s poll driven. The Democratic Party could benefit by a kind of freshness in approach, because it really does attract new people.”

With that, he heads off to meet another throng of eager acolytes in San Francisco.